Book: Pete Townshend & Des McAnuff; Score: Pete Townshend with additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.. Tickets: 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org; $40-$160. Runs through Aug. 6
The Who's Tommy at the Goodman Theatre could have been revived as both a nostalgic 20th century period piece and a victory lap for director Des McAnuff. Back in 1993, McAnuff and original The Who member Pete Townshend adapted the British band's iconic 1969 rock opera album into a five-time Tony Award-winning Broadway musical spectacle.
But instead of mounting a slavish recreation, McAnuff and Townshend have re-imagined The Who's Tommy for today.
At the center of The Who's Tommy is a generational trauma tale involving a sexually- and physically-abused "deaf, dumb and blind kid" who grows into a "Pinball Wizard" of pop star proportions by the end of the swinging '60s. As re-envisioned at the Goodman, the musical now becomes a future-is-now celebrity parable, showing how much mankind has become melded with machines.
Three decades ago, in a more analog age, The Who's Tommy kicked off on Broadway with a photo negative effect of two eyes projected on a red velvet curtain. It lifted to reveal a color-saturated Pop Art world of performers constantly abuzz amid via the latest in '90s video and projection technology and automated stage machinery.
But now The Who's Tommy commences someplace "in the future," via a silent prologue, as ensemble members gear up with virtual reality helmets to take a deep digital dive into the past. It's as if set designer David Korins and projection designer Peter Nigrini opted for a darker, monochromatic palate (think the 2010 film sequel Tron: Legacy versus the 1982 original) and framed all the imagery like it's emanating from behind the black mirror of an enormous smartphone screen.
Mirror-masked ensemble members also mix in with period-costumed choristers at key moments. It's like the DJ duo Daft Punk sneaked in to pay homage to a prized predecessor like electronic pop pioneer Giorgio Moroder, or multimillionaire Twitch gamers who discovered time travel to find the foundations of arcade-gaming celebrity.
Much like his earlier Tony Award-winning work on The Who's Tommy, director McAnuff keeps the action fast-paced and frenetic, allowing for brief bursts of dance. Choreographer Lorin Latarro also provides plenty of punchy and angular movement for the ever-busy ensemble, proving to be a worthy successor to Wayne Cilento and his Tony Award-winning choreography from 1993.
But in other ways, McAnuff opts to make his revival staging of The Who's Tommy much simpler.
When lighting designer Amanda Zieve isn't assaulting your irises with flashy and colorful effects, she also provides all the necessary shadows to conceal the ensemble members in black bodysuits who move the simplified scenery around like Japanese kabuki kuroko stagehands. These kuroko folks also do the heavy lifting for most of the flying effects involving the teenage Tommy (a magnetic and marvelously voiced Ali Louis Bourzgui) to comment on earlier events experienced by his 4- and 10-year-old selves (which include the respective young performers Ava Rose Doty, Presley Rose Jones, Annabel Finch and Ezekiel Ruiz who all alternate as the younger Tommy).
As before, McAnuff wisely steers clear of the the indulgent excesses of Ken Russell's hallucinogenic 1975 film version. By grounding The Who's Tommy with plenty of household drama amid the rocking flights of fancy, more of the emotions among the main characters can emerge genuinely.
But I wished the ensemble could have delved much deeper into their characters' motivations (and to improve their British accents). There's no denying the level of technical talent within the singing and dancing cast, but in many cases they appear to be just grazing the surface of their character's inner turmoils than giving fully lived-in portrayals.
These include characters who exploit or endanger Tommy. The drug-addled Cousin Kevin of Bobby Conte is just a bully, while the often-inebriated Uncle Ernie of John Ambrosino doesn't get to show off any music hall showboating since his Act II solo "Tommy's Holiday Camp" has been cut. Christina Sajous vocally impresses as the Acid Queen, but her underwritten character feels more like an afterthought.
As Captain Walker and his wife, Adam Jacobs and Alison Luff respectively show plenty of British reserve, but not as much guilt or emotional conflict as I would have liked. In the far more explicit staging of the added '90s song "I Believe My Own Eyes," which shows Tommy's parents finally deciding to institutionalize him, Jacobs and Luff appeared like they were just going through the motions.
But perhaps I'm being too harsh. My vivid impression of seeing The Who's Tommy in New York in the '90s also comes with watching so many of the show's charismatic ensemble members (such as Alice Ripley, Sherie Rene Scott and Norm Lewis) go on to have big Broadway careers.
Predicting the future is incorporated into The Who's Tommy with the Act II reprise of "I'm Free," with a chilling emphasis on the lyric "And I'm waiting for you to follow me!" It's amazing how much of The Who's Tommy" predicted our own current age of social media stars who dangerously get built up and toppled at a moment's notice.
Some may find a disconnect in this time-hopping device amid the show's usual storytelling time line. But McAnuff's new approach highlights the inherent prescience of The Who's Tommy at predicting how we have become entrenched in an age of information saturation and worship of outward shows of success at any cost.
So The Who's Tommy at the Goodman has become an insightful exercise in both nostalgically looking back and anticipating an uncertain future. In the audience of the press night performance, not only could you spot two-time Tony Award winner Michael Cerveris (who originated the title role of Tommy on Broadway), but also powerful Broadway producer Jeffrey Seller (Rent, Hamilton), who could be eying up the show for a New York transfer.
Whether that happens or not, The Who's Tommy at the Goodman ultimately does become a victory lap for McAnuff. His smart and cinematic past and current direction of The Who's Tommy confidently helped to carve out a bigger place for Top-40 acts to flourish on Broadway via jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys, Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations and more. McAnuff and The Who's Tommy truly helped Broadway to become far more comfortable in unabashedly rocking out.