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Queerty: Goodman Theatre’s maximalist revival of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ catapults its star into the spotlight

'The Who's Tommy' at Goodman TheatreThe company of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

The Rundown

“See me! Feel me! Touch me! Heal me!”

The Who’s Tommy at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre delivers lyrical glitter bombs matched by soaring vocals, guitar riffs, and a visual spectacle that will appeal to aging rockers and theater fans.

In 1992, The Who’s Pete Townshend collaborated with director Des McAnuff to turn Tommy — the band’s groundbreaking 1969 concept album about a traumatized prodigy turned reluctant guru — into a stage musical. The result was a hit at San Diego‘s La Jolla Playhouse and subsequently on Broadway.

Far from the onslaught of cheesy jukebox musicals to overtake Broadway, new Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Susan V. Booth describes the production as “a wall of sound,” redefining what musical theater can be. McAnuff, who also co-wrote the show’s book, returns to direct the musical at the Goodman, marking its 30th anniversary since its Broadway premiere.


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No Tea, No Shade

Ali Louis Bourzgui in Goodman Theatre's 'The Who's Tommy'Ali Louis Bourzgui in ‘The Who’s Tommy’ at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

Tommy Walker’s story begins in 1941 London. When Captain Walker (Adam Jacobs) unexpectedly returns after going missing in action, he shoots Mrs. Walker’s (Alison Luff) new lover (Nathan Lucrezio). Four-year-old Tommy (Presley Rose Jones), the sole witness thanks to a mirror, completely shuts down. No doctor or vicar can break through, and the vulnerable preteen (Annabel Finch) is abused by his alcoholic Uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino) and sadistic cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte). Even after gaining a following through pinball, adult Tommy (Ali Louis Bourzgui) remains Deaf, mute, and blind — until one day, he isn’t. Now in command of his senses, Tommy leads his worshipers into the 1960s and beyond. But does he want to be a hero?

In the show’s playbill, director McAnuff reflects, “Today, the whole world seems to be looking into a mirror — as Tommy does — albeit a very black mirror.” Indeed, Tommy’s production design (set design by David Korins, projections by Peter Nigrini) recalls the Netflix anthology Black Mirror: dark and shiny with pops of primary color almost jarring in their brightness. The Who’s melodies are supremely challenging, and the stellar cast steps up to the plate, led by Bourzgui, who co-starred in Goodman’s queer-centric Layalina. Bourzgui’s wide-eyed performance — equal parts provocative and soulful — is a tour de force.

“You can’t pare down The Who,” I texted my mom at intermission. Thankfully, McAnuff doesn’t kowtow to the minimalist trend seen in the latest revivals of Into the Woods and A Doll’s House. An elevated concert reading wouldn’t fly with Tommy, a wildly futuristic (no matter the year it’s produced) parable that screams for maximalism. From shiny metal full-face masks that resemble pinballs to the vividly yellow flowers little Tommy gives his mother before all hell breaks loose to earsplitting guitar riffs and triple pirouettes that won’t quit, this Tommy sings big, moves big, and feels big.

Let’s Have a Moment

Christina Sajous in ‘The Who’s Tommy’ at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

The Who’s Tommy’s first act closes with a dynamic one-two punch: “The Acid Queen” (made iconic by Tina Turner in the 1975 film adaptation) and “Pinball Wizard” (wailed by Elton John in the film and perhaps Tommy’s best-known tune.) As the drug-addicted sex worker that a desperate Captain Walker brings his son to — only to pull young Tommy away at the last minute — Christina Sajous is bruised, twitchy, and unapologetically sensual, channeling Turner in the best possible way.

In “Pinball Wizard,” Cousin Kevin and his cronies ponder Tommy’s gifts while already exploiting him in a tour de force of music and movement, with bandleader Rick Fox, choreographer Lorin Latarro and the hardest-working ensemble in Chicago leaving everything on the stage.

The Last Word

Ali Louis Bourzgui and the cast of 'The Who's Tommy' at Goodman TheatreAli Louis Bourzgui and the cast of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ at Goodman Theatre. Photo by Liz Lauren

These days, theater producers often gravitate to the power of nostalgia and a longing to return to “simpler times” that were anything but (look to the recent mediocre revivals of Camelot and The Music Man. Tommy, the album, was released in an era of Nixon and Vietnam, and its stage version dropped the same year as the World Trade Center bombing and the Waco cult compound raid. Now the world is literally on fire, and fundamental human rights are at stake. As an album, a show, and now a stunning maximalist revival that will stay with the audience long after the final curtain, The Who’s Tommy offers no easy answers but instead reinforces that trauma is real and human connection will get us through. We hope.

The Who’s Tommy plays at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre through August 6.

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