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    Saturday, May 25, 2024

    ‘Tommy,’ Pete Townshend’s generational howl of anguish, opens on Broadway

    New York — Pete Townshend’s prescient 1969 rock opera “Tommy,” a horrifying if ultimately transcendent howl of anger and anguish at the damage wrought on the boomer generation by their war-scarred parents, has returned to Broadway in a new, born-in-Chicago production from director Des McAnuff that will sock you right in the gut.

    McAnuff, of course, is the guy who first theatricalized this epically expressionistic piece of British vinyl. His flipper fingers still play a mean pinball in a digital era unimaginable in the glory days of The Who. Townshend remains one of the world’s great rock composers and guitarists, even though he wrote his masterpiece while still in his early 20s, back when pop music was all chirpy three-minute singles and far from ready for an ephemeral, multi-song “opera” with themes of abuse. The Beatles had released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” sure. But the Who had far more stoic rock fans, preferring loud guitar riffs to psychedelic experiments.

    Now, though, the world has spun forward enough times to meet “Tommy” where it always lived, meaning its psychologically oriented story of delayed self-actualization due to childhood trauma, and its withering parody of abusive authority figures and celebrity worship. Townshend has said he wrote “Tommy” to give the Who heft, to find himself as an artist, and to help bring self-awareness to a similarly young audience that had not yet understood either its own experience or what it really wanted out of life. McAnuff clearly was not done in 1993 with this show, the year it first opened on Broadway.

    How do you think they did it? The answer to me was obvious at the eye-popping premiere of “The Who’s Tommy” last summer at the Goodman Theatre. McAnuff has worked on many jukebox musicals over the years, but clearly feels this one as generationally definitional and thus has ranged deeper. Or, in less fancy words, this is the work of late-career people who now care about a lot more than selling tickets,

    That said, in the new choreographer Lorin Latarro, McAnuff found a younger person who could put “Tommy’s” expressionist themes into movement. Latarro’s work feels to me keyed around the idea of young bodies moving without regard to signals from the brain, as if reacting to rifle fire from either without or within their own skins. It’s a sight to see.

    If you saw the original “Tommy” in 1993, as did I, you’ll otherwise likely see many similarities in terms of McAnuff’s narrative contribution to the storytelling. (He has a co-writer credit even though the piece remains through-composed with virtually no dialogue.) But the first “Tommy” came from an analog era; this time around Townshend and McAnuff have digital projections to explore, allowing greater fluidity. Peter Nigrini’s projections are some of the best virtual images I’ve ever seen, from a storytelling perspective. They are sufficiently restrained not to compete with the humans. They evoke 1960s London with utter veracity. And they can pulse like a Mark Rothko painting when combined with David Korins’ set and Amanda Zieve’s lighting.

    “Tommy” has no stars. Principally unchanged from Chicago, the cast showcases the enigmatic but disciplined Ali Louis Bourzgui in the adult version of the title role, Alison Luff (who hits some tough notes to crack) and Adam Jacobs. There’s also a courageous stunner of a supporting performance from John Ambrosino as wicked Uncle Ernie, self-loathing to the end. The feeling is of collective excellence more than star-turns.

    The fascinating thing now for those of us who grew up listening to “Tommy” (I wore my copy out) is that boomer men now are most often seen, culturally, as aggressors headed for a reckoning. “Tommy” offers the flip side, a musical explanation of what parents, or a wicked uncle, or a bullying cousin did to us at a vulnerable age. It’s all long been unspoken, any sins seen as a slight on the greatest generation. But most of us find a least some of Tommy’s experience familiar. I’m a boomer on the edge of Gen X, but my version of Uncle Ernie and Cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte) were plenty close enough to these two to make empathy for Tommy a decadeslong thing.

    Not everyone, of course, has had that life experience; some might see this show as an apologia for the already indulged. If that’s you, walk on down 41st Street and give up your ticket to one who understands precisely what Townshend achieved in 1969 and that now returns as a loud boomer coda, an emancipatory rock banquet and a reminder that dads really have improved.

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