Review: See, Feel, Hear and Touch The Who’s Tommy at Goodman Theatre

Poet Maya Angelou suffered violence and didn’t speak for years. Tommy Walker witnessed murder and similarly shut down his senses to deal with that trauma. His fictional narrative was created by Pete Townshend in 1969, as The Who’s fourth studio album, a double set and a new art form: the rock opera. A movie starring the band’s lead singer (and stone cold hottie) Roger Daltrey premiered in 1975. The stage musical opened in 1992, and garnered co-creators Townshend and Des McAnuff five Tony Awards. The pair are together again with an update of The Who’s Tommy at the Goodman Theatre, revisiting the story of the deaf, dumb and blind kid who sure plays a mean pinball.

Tommy (Ali Louis Bourzgui). Photo by Liz Lauren.

Gun violence, child abuse, addictive games, neurodivergence and encroaching fascism dominate our present moment as well as this bittersweet journey. Cults and cults of personality are also topical and omnipresent. Co-book writer and director McAnuff helms a nine-piece band and a cast of 29 through this energetic, tightly designed musical infused with large doses of sadness and longing before any redemption.

Moroccan-American actor Ali Louis Bourzgui is a sympathetic Tommy, who often engages with his 4-year-old and 10-year-old selves (a rotating cast of kids). He escapes into his mind and the mirror after he witnesses his father Captain Walker (Adam Jacobs), presumed dead in World War 2, return and kill a man he finds with Tommy’s mother (Alison Luff). The parents spend decades seeking treatments to help their son escape his self-created prison, alongside stints with abusive sitters like Uncle Ernie (John Ambrosino) and Cousin Kevin (Bobby Conte). His only solace becomes playing pinball, as he hasn’t walled off his sense of touch.

Tommy (Ali Louis Bourzgui) on his pinball pulpit. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Tommy ascends to pinball wizard status, amassing a cultish following along the way. When Mrs. Walker finally breaks adult Tommy’s mirror, he regains his senses but never abandons his plea for people to “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me,” an endless lament for human connection and understanding. (That refrain was first written in 1967 on Rolling Meadows, Illinois, Holiday Inn stationery after a Who concert in Arlington Heights, pictured below.)

David Korins’ production design is sparse and stunning, using scrims, projections (by Peter Nigrini), a bit of flying (by ZFX, Inc.), and a few set pieces to propel audiences throughout the decades of struggle. We’re reminded that World War 2 is not far away from our favorite rock stars’ memories (also see Pink Floyd’s The Wall). The simultaneously thrilling and horrifying aspects of fighting for one’s country are captured by the diverse, cohesive ensemble (with quirky choreography by Lorin Latarro), including the brilliant staging of paratroopers deployed through a trap door.

Acid Queen (Christina Sajous). Photo by Liz Lauren

The production is a familiar touchstone, full of human foibles and evocative tunes, but still seems to be finding its sea legs, as it skews more toward a composed musical theater show rather than a balls-to-the-walls rock performance. Christina Sajous’s Acid Queen achieves that perfect blend of writhing theatricality and belting rock chops (reminiscent of Tina Turner’s indelible performance in the film - I’m still haunted by her heroin Iron Maiden from when I saw the movie at age 13). Yet the production’s earnest energy is infectious and the pursuit of redemption is timeless.

Tommy (Ali Louis Bourzgui) and company. Photo by Liz Lauren.

The Who’s Tommy runs through August 6 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets are $30-$185, and are available online or at 312-443-3800. Pinball players can play in a pop-up arcade before or after most performances. The highest scorer by the end of the run will win a custom Tommy Fender Stratocaster signed by Townshend. NOTE: This production includes loud gun shots.

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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.