Regional Reviews: Chicago
The Who's Tommy
Also see Christine's recent review of Another Marriage
There's no denying that the work has suffered from storyline problems dating back to the original double album. Townshend and McAnuff's additions and alterations in 1992 for the musical version arguably deepened these in their attempts to move in the direction of a more linear narrative, rather than simply leaning into the magical reasoning dear to traditional operas. This version is reimagined primarily in staging, and the cracks in the book still show, but it's to the production's credit that it does very strong work forging connections among the three versions of Tommy (age four, age ten, and as a young adult) that it smooths over some of the weaknesses fairly effectively.
And In any case, the audience is there for the music and the spectacle, which this incarnation delivers in spades, beginning with the visuals. These are so unified, slick, energetic, and perfectly executed that it is difficult to tease apart what to applaud individual members of the design team for.
David Korins' set design seems relatively minimal, yet the use of thresholds made, essentially, of white light is brilliant. These effortlessly signal interior and exterior, as well as imparting the feeling of descent into dangerous spaces during "Fiddle About" and "The Acid Queen." Korins repeats this theme of frames of light, flying in oddly shaped windows and borders that suggest newspapers, then TV screens, demonstrating that the show itself presents opportunities to generate meaningful and necessary narrative connective tissue without any kind of rigid through-line.
But just as critical as the visual foundation that Korins' set provides is the agile lighting design by Amanda Zieve that tells a surprisingly nuanced emotional story in light, shadow and color. Zieve punctuates the baseline of stark black and white not just with the piercing yellow that becomes Tommy's signature later in the show, but with flashes of red and subtle use of grayscale that evoke the politics and propaganda of the midtwentieth century.
It's difficult to overstate the importance and sheer brilliance of Peter Nigrini's projection design. It is especially stunning during the show's opening scenes, as the projections re-create London during the Blitz, British planes full of paratroopers over Germany, and Captain Walker's fateful jump itself. Nigrini and team visually allude to, without ever directly mimicking, a host of twentieth-century cultural touchstones to ground Tommy's eventual eruption into youth- and counter-culture in all that came before. And on top of the narrative work they do, the projections themselves are gorgeous and lend the stage tremendous depth.
Sarafina Bush's approach to costuming is intriguing. Tommy and his parents are presented more or less naturalistically, with Tommy marked by black trousers and white shirts. It's on the ensemble that Bush smartly focuses her energy to convey the passage of time without allowing herself to be pinned to down to concrete specifics. She gives the audience 1950s greasers with a zoot suit vibe, and poodle-skirted teenagers with a hard edge. As Tommy ascends to his messianic heights, she dresses the ensemble in mod, stylistically variable black and white, concisely conveying the various identities and political stances that are briefly drawn to him before rejecting his ultimately confused message. Bush's use of black base layers, however, also enables ensemble members to swiftly shift from individual identities to faceless minions in the service of larger forces.
Bush's costuming serves as a complement to Latarro's choreography. Movement is critical in guiding the audience's attention and experience, and Latarro has a fascinating knack for using performers' bodies in conjunction with one another. She suggests a paratrooper just after they jump by using one performer to support the body of another as they lean far out toward the audience, and particularly fascinating is the way she calls for the young versions of Tommy to be passed around and manipulated by doctors, charlatans, bullies, and abusers. In this she creates a wonderful tension between passivity and reaction that's very much like pinball itself.
Lest so much emphasis on the visual elements of the production suggest that that the music somehow takes a back seat, it's important to acknowledge that the music, under the direction of Rick Fox, is outstanding. For anyone who comes to the stage show from the concept album, there's a necessary moment of adjustment to the slightly less furious pacing, but there's a considerable payoff in the ability to appreciate individual voices and instruments.
Ali Louis Bourzgui does a tremendous job as the adult Tommy. His rich voice comes across as an extension of his stage presence and charisma, and the occasional flashes of something harder-edged are rewarding. The palpable connection he forges with the young actors portraying Tommy at different ages (Annabel Finch plays Tommy, age 10; Ava Rose Doty and Presley Rose Jones alternate Tommy, age 4) becomes especially affecting as the three sing together near the end of the show.
In the supporting cast, Bobby Conte is outstanding and repellant (as he must be) as Cousin Kevin in both his bullying and thuggish days. Sheldon Henry's performance as the Hawker (Henry also plays the Jude and the Specialist), paired with the work of Christina Sajous as the Acid Queen makes for an unforgettable, skin-crawlingly effective journey to the Isle of Dogs.
Allison Luff and Adam Jacobs as Tommy's parents, as well as John Ambrosino as Uncle Ernie, throw themselves into the most problematic roles in the show and acquit themselves well. Even if it's more or less impossible to sell the family reunion at the musical's ending, the three certainly approach success.
Haley Gustafson may have struggled a bit vocally during "Sally Simpson," but all was forgotten as her soaring soprano shattered the illusions of both Tommy and his followers in "Sally's Question," launching the whole talented ensemble into "We're Not Gonna Take it."
The Who's Tommy runs through August 6, 2023, at the Goodman Theatre, Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, visit GoodmanTheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.