'The Who's Tommy' review — electrifying revival absolutely rocks

Read our review of The Who's Tommy on Broadway, the first revival of the rock-opera musical co-created by director Des McAnuff and The Who's Pete Townshend.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

It’s hard to imagine a first-act finale in a Broadway show more sensational than what goes down midway through the eye-popping, ear-thumping, goosebump-inducing new production of The Who’s Tommy at the Nederlander Theatre.

That’s when this revival serves up “Pinball Wizard.” It’s one of the work’s most famous hits by Pete Townshend, who wrote the music and lyrics and co-authored the book with director Des McAnuff. Between the chronically catchy song, full-tilt performances, and movement to match, the number is electrifying.

The great news is that what precedes and follows this moment also stirs and tickles the senses. That’s the way this rock opera rolls, as it spins the story of a boy so deeply damaged by life – first by his parents and later by his abusive uncle and creepy cousin – that he nearly shuts down completely.

Tommy, who appears at ages 4, 10, and as a young adult, can’t see, hear, or speak. What he can do is connect with an inner persona and play “a mean pinball” – and those idiosyncrasies lead to his unlikely celebrity status. Tommy develops a cult following and experiences the adoration and rejection of fickle followers and, finally, his own liberation.

Tommy’s saga delivers a pointed and potent take on trauma, fame, and individuality that resonates and speaks directly to today. In a bit of wizardry, McAnuff plays fast and loose with the time frame, which typically ends in the late 1960s. Which explains why Tommy’s fans now come with selfie sticks. Yes, Tommy, we can hear you. Loud and clear.

The Who’s Tommy summary

The story of Tommy stretches back to 1969, when British rock band The Who introduced it on a double concept album. The LPs morphed into a 1975 movie and a Broadway musical in 1993 that won five Tony Awards, including Best Score for Townshend and Best Director for McAnuff. The new production, reuniting that original duo, is its first return to Broadway.

The show marks the Broadway debut for Ali Louis Bourzgui, a multi-talented actor who shoulders the show as the grown-up Tommy in outstanding fashion. Alison Luff and Adam Jacobs lend strong support as Tommy’s parents. Bobby Conte is aptly cast as Cousin Kevin, who never misses a chance to bully Tommy.

What to expect at The Who’s Tommy

Bright stars of this show are the music and the kinetic and gleaming production, one in which the visual imagery is as choreographed as the dancing. The show takes off like a speeding bullet and it seldom, if ever, slows down.

The long, wordless opening stretch begins in 1941 with the strumming of a guitar and scenery and costumes in shades of gray. Captain Walker goes to war and is taken captive, leaving his pregnant wife behind. She has a baby, Tommy. A few years later, Walker returns and gets rid of his wife’s lover.

At this point, the music amps up and gets more electric. Mom and Dad convince little Tommy he didn’t see or hear anything. Tommy retreats into himself – for years. Townshend wasn’t bent on writing a cautionary family guide when he made this rock-and-roll wonder packed with gems like “See Me, Feel Me” and “Acid Queen.” Still, Tommy is a good guide on how not to parent.

What audiences are saying about The Who’s Tommy

Prior to opening night, The Who’s Tommy had an overall 87% rating on Show-Score, with many audience members cheering.

  • "Masterful revival with modern/futuristic updates making it relevant in a world where virtual worlds are an escape from the real world." - Show-Score user Show Addict
  • "Don’t see it if you dislike loud music or metaphorical stories. The narrative is not realistic and doesn’t try to be. It’s a parable/morality tale." - Show-Score user Mark B
  • "See it if you already know the music and the story because you will not know what’s going on – staging and choreography was good along with the cast." - Show-Score user Robert 18
  • “Has anyone ever won a Tony twice for directing the same show?” - Audience member at my performance during intermission

Read more audience reviews of The Who’s Tommy on Show-Score.

Who should see The Who’s Tommy

  • The Who fans who’ve never seen Tommy before. Seeing a band’s songs come to life in new ways on stage, well, rocks.
  • On the flip side: theatregoers who saw McAnuff’s 1993 Broadway staging and are curious what’s new and different.
  • Folks who are fond of bragging that they saw so-and-so before they were famous. Ali Louis Bourzgui delivers that kind of star power.

Learn more about The Who’s Tommy on Broadway

Rock musicals don’t come to Broadway often. It’s rare when they truly rock – and The Who's Tommy does.

Learn more and get The Who’s Tommy tickets on New York Theatre Guide. The Who’s Tommy is at the Nederlander Theatre.

Additional The Who’s Tommy content

Photo credit: Ali Louis Bourzgui (center) and the cast of The Who's Tommy. (Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Originally published on

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