Goodman delivers magnificent 4-star revival of 'The Who's Tommy'

“The Who's Tommy” - ★ ★ ★ ★

If Goodman Theatre's incandescent revival of “The Who's Tommy” does nothing else, it reminds rockers (aging and otherwise) why they love the music they love. Case in point, the rapturous finale that begins with a reprise of the plaintive “See Me, Feel Me” and segues into the bold, relentless “Listening to You,” an anthem to the enduring power of rock 'n' roll.

Ali Louis Bourzgui plays Tommy, the "deaf, dumb and blind" pinball wizard turned cult leader in Goodman Theatre's dazzling, re-imagined production of "The Who's Tommy." Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Goodman's dazzling production is not so much a re-imagining of composer/lyricist Pete Townshend's stage adaptation (featuring additional music by John Entwistle and Keith Moon) as an “expansion.” So says Des McAnuff, the original director and co-writer who revisits the show on the 30th anniversary of its Broadway premiere.

The musical chronicles the evolution of the titular Tommy Walker, a “deaf, dumb and blind kid” and childhood abuse survivor, to pinball champion whose fame attracts legions of followers. While he originally intended pinball as a metaphor for organized religion, Townshend later recast it as metaphor for rock 'n' roll, with the pinball machine substituting for an electric guitar. In essence, “Tommy” is about the making of a guitar hero, the power it affords (which is easily exploited) and the disillusion that accompanies success.

Tommy Walker's parents, played by Alison Luff and Adam Jacobs, ponder the plight of their son played by Annabel Finch, at age 10, and Ali Louis Bourzgui, as an adult, in "The Who's Tommy," a Goodman Theatre production commemorating the 30th anniversary of the rock opera's Broadway debut. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

But at its core, “The Who's Tommy” is about overcoming childhood trauma, reconciliation and the folly of blindly following a self-styled “sensation.”

An inspired piece of theater, McAnuff's stylish “Tommy” is fresh and incisive. An aural and visual feast, it is a production of the moment and of its time. Reflecting the post-World War II era (when the action unfolds) and the late 1960s (when the show was composed), it also references a present dominated by technology that makes it easy for people to isolate themselves, a point costume designer Sarafina Bush conveys through the virtual reality-style headsets ensemble members wear in the opening number.

Composer/lyricist Pete Townshend's "Tommy" score (with additional music from John Entwistle and Keith Moon) sounds as majestic as ever under music director Rick Fox and original director Des McAnuff in Goodman Theatre's exhilarating revival. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

Of course, Tommy's isolation is not self-imposed. He retreats into himself after witnessing a deadly altercation involving his paratrooper POW father (Adam Jacobs, convincing as a flawed, fundamentally decent man), his mother (Alison Luff, whose portrayal of guilt and grief gives weight to a two-dimensional character) and her lover.

While there's no cure for his condition, pinball offers a kind of solace. His miraculous skill makes him a star whose cult following grows after he regains his senses.

Orbiting around the family is sadistic Cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte), Tommy's onetime tormentor turned jackbooted enforcer; Uncle Ernie, a drunken pedophile masterfully played by John Ambrosino, who conveys torment without earning pity; and the Acid Queen (Christina Sajous), a drug-addicted prostitute who promises Tommy's parents a cure. From principals to supporting performers (Haley Gustafson as Sally Simpson, pinball lads Mark Mitrano and Jeremiah Alsop, hawker Sheldon Henry) to choristers, this is a vocally formidable ensemble. They're matched by music director Rick Fox's muscular band whose nine members faithfully re-create The Who's trademark sonic assault.

Thirty years after its Broadway debut, Goodman Theatre revives "The Who's Tommy" by composer/lyricist Pete Townshend and under the direction of original director and co-writer Des McAnuff. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

The production benefits from McAnuff's savvy direction and the skill that enables him to mine emotionally weighty moments from a slender narrative diminished by an inexplicable pivot late in the second act.

But that is a minor point in a major production animated by bold, sophisticated visuals whose black-and-white palette is punctuated by primary colors. The action unfolds on David Korins' spare, suggestive set whose backdrop consists of Peter Nigrini's photo negative projections suggesting clinical detachment. Combined with Amanda Zieve's unrelenting lighting, it is an impressive optical display well-suited to the score's heft.

Choreographer Lorin Latarro brilliantly depicts a young man buffeted by forces beyond his control. Powerless, Tommy (the commanding, charismatic Ali Louis Bourzgui) and his younger selves - played at age 4 by Presley Rose Jones (sharing the role with Ava Rose Doty) and at 10 by Annabel Finch (sharing the role with Ezekial Ruiz) - spend most of the show being lifted, spun, nudged and passed by ensemble members who morph from medical professionals to tormentors to acolytes.

Christina Sajous plays The Acid Queen in "The Who's Tommy," running through Aug. 6 at the Goodman Theatre. The late Tina Turner played the role in the 1975 film adaptation of The Who's seminal rock opera. Courtesy of Liz Lauren

The herky-jerky movement Latarro incorporates - expressed in fits and starts by Goodman's finely tuned ensemble - reflect the uncertainty and fear Tommy and his mates experience. Paired with traditional moves evidenced in a rock-infused jitterbug, Latarro's often frenetic choreography is an exhilarating addition to a remarkable production.

And yet, what I will remember most from this expansive incarnation deserving of a Broadway berth is Townshend's stellar score celebrating art's healing power and cautioning against blind allegiance and creeping authoritarianism. Rooted in The Who's trademark propulsive percussion and Townshend's distinctive playing, it delivers everything fans expect: the mammoth sustained chords from the majestic “Pinball Wizard,” the twang that ushers in “I'm Free,” the glorious distortion, the quiet murmurs.

It's all there, a magnificent reminder of music's power.

Long live rock.

Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800,

Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday through Aug. 6. Also 7:30 p.m. July 18 and 25. No 7:30 p.m. show July 2, 23 or 30

Tickets: $30-$185

Running time: About 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission

Parking: Nearby garages, discounted parking with Goodman Theatre validation at the Government Center Self Park at Clark and Lake streets

Rating: For teens and older, includes depictions of child abuse, sexual abuse, bullying. The production also includes loud music, gunshots, strobe and flashing lights

COVID-19 precautions: Masks optional

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