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TOMMY, WE CAN HEAR YOU! By Peter Filichia

Those of us who attended THE WHO’S TOMMY on March 27 learned that it was a special evening.

Before the show, director Des McAnuff stood near the orchestra pit and told us that this was “Alumni Night.”

Many of the cast and crew members from his original 1993 Broadway production were in attendance in the Nederlander Theatre. They were undoubtedly anxious to see what McAnuff – who’d 31 years ago steered the show to a 25-month success – would do this time around.

(Yes, 31 years. They should have the opening night party at Baskin-Robbins.)

McAnuff paid tribute to TOMMY veterans who had passed in the interim: Chris Parry, the lighting designer, and Ted Baker, the keyboardist, among them. However, he didn’t say which people connected with the first iteration were in the house — “the ones,” he said, “on whose shoulders we stand.”

His speech was followed by one of the greatest overtures of all time. We’re always raving about GYPSY and FUNNY GIRL (and we should be talking more about GOLDILOCKS and ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY). But musical theater enthusiasts don’t often mention THE WHO’S TOMMY when they list their favorites because they got it second-hand, 24 years after Pete Townshend’s concept album was released.

But just as adoptive parents love their children as much as biological parents do, we should embrace TOMMY’S majestic overture and not worry about its lineage.

Here’s hoping that Michael Cerveris, the original adult Tommy, was in the house. Ali Louis Bourzgui’s performance would bring him fond memories of his first of nine Broadway shows. He’d follow the Tony nomination he received here with wins for both ASSASSINS and FUN HOME.

Nothing against Bourzgui, who shines in this revival, but I kept hearing Cerveris from the many times I’ve played the excellent two-disc original Broadway cast album. Hearing the famous plaintive plea that starts with “See me” actually did bring his performance back in my mind’s eye.

Were Marcia Mitzman and Jonathan Dokuchitz at the Nederlander, to see what Alison Luff and Adam Jacobs were doing as Tommy’s parents? The newbies certainly had the power of their forebears, when demanding of their four-year-old son that “You didn’t hear it! You didn’t see it!”, before blaring the ungrammatical “You won’t say nothing to no one!”

As it turns out, Tommy obeys much more than they would have hoped; after their harangue, he doesn’t hear, see or say anything. As Sondheim wrote in COMPANY, “The children you destroy together.”

Just as before, two tots alternate performances as the four-year-old Tommy. Once again, McAnuff has opted for some non-traditional casting. Two girls played him in 1993, and two girls are portraying him now.

Luff and Jacobs do Mitzman and Dokuchitz proud in the sequence where they repeatedly ask each other “Do you think it’s alright?” to leave Tommy alone with Uncle Ernie as a babysitter. The new pair does just as well as the previous one in trying to convince each other that it will indeed be “alright.” In a 20-line song, the term “alright” appears in 15 of them.

As Ann Landers, an advice columnist of yore, often said, for a respite of peace, quiet or fun, parents often will often leave their kids with anyone and hope for the best.

Alas, TOMMY, which starts in the early ‘40s and continues into the late ‘60s, is too early for the nanny-cam era. The Walkers certainly could have used one, for neither Uncle Ernie nor Cousin Kevin will win Babysitter of the Year honors. John Ambrosino seems more dangerous than Paul Kandel once did, but some of that comes with almost a third-of-a-century of our hearing from too many pedophilia victims. In contrast, Bobby Conte as Cousin Kevin – like Anthony Barrile before him –  seems comparatively benign for “just” being a bully.

Although video games had been on the scene for 21 years before THE WHO’S TOMMY’s 1993 opening, pinball machines could still be found in the occasional arcade. One wonders if now, though – nearly a third of a century later – today’s teens who attend the musical with their parents and hear “Pinball Wizard,” the show’s most famous song, wind up asking, “Mom? Dad? What’s pinball?”

No discussion of THE WHO’S TOMMY is complete without a mention of The Gypsy who also comes out as The Acid Queen. Although the former term is controversial and has its nay-sayers, it’s been retained.

Here, too, Christina Sajous shows enough acid to fill a battery of DieHard batteries, as Cheryl Freeman once did.

What’s also fun in hearing the 1993 original cast album of THE WHO’S TOMMY is listening carefully, in hopes of recognizing the voices that would become far more famous in the ensuing years. The ensemble included:

  • Christian Hoff, who won a Tony for playing Tony – DeVito, that is, in JERSEY BOYS.
  • Norm Lewis, now a veteran of 14 Broadway shows, who played Porgy – not in a summer in Ohio, but on Broadway to Audra McDonald’s Bess in 2012.
  • Michael McElroy, who played and sang the role of Jim in DeafWest’s production of BIG RIVER. Although Tony-nominated for that performance, he was awarded an Honorary Tony in 2019 for founding and directing Broadway Inspirational Voices.
  • Alice Ripley, who landed her first Best Actress in a Musical Tony nomination for playing one of the Hilton Sisters in the original SIDE SHOW. Eleven years later, she won that prize for her memorable stint in NEXT TO NORMAL.
  • Sherie Renee Scott, who’s done what the others haven’t: getting a Best Book of a Musical nomination for EVERYDAY RAPTURE.

(Not that the Tonys neglected to name her a Best Actress in a Musical nominee for the same show.)

So, who knows which of the 2024 ensemble members will follow in their august footsteps?

The orchestrations are still Steve Margoshes’, and they retain the urgency we heard way back when on the first cast album. What ominous guitar riffs pervade the sound system when the presumed dead Captain Walker comes home and finds that his wife has replaced him. They certainly are a harbinger that no good will come of this situation.

And so, once again, THE WHO’S TOMMY, still the most revered rock opera, has embarked on an amazing journey.

By the way – would anyone have ever predicted that there would be a ceremony where Pete Townshend, John Kander and Fred Ebb would be standing on the same stage and receiving the same honor?

That’s what happened at the 1992-1993 Tony Awards after Diahann Carroll announced that the team had won for KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN while Townshend of course had won for THE WHO’S TOMMY. It was a fitting metaphor that Broadway was acknowledging both the past and future of theater music.

And now, in 2024, all three men are again represented on Broadway. Kander and Ebb’s CHICAGO really does seem to make good on the claim that CATS always boasted but couldn’t achieve – “Now and Forever!”

What’s more, we’ll soon have the Kander and Ebb’s CABARET in its fifth Broadway production. Wouldn’t it be something if – on June 16, when the Best Revival of a Musical Tony is announced – there’s a tie between CABARET and THE WHO’S TOMMY?

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.