Creatives shine new light on ‘The Who’s Tommy’ in Goodman Theatre world premiere

Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff have reimagined their classic stage musical for a new age.

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Ali Louis Bourzgui as Tommy Walker (center) is joined by the company of “The Who’s Tommy,” with (far right) Tommy’s parents, Captain Walker (Adam Jacobs) and Mrs. Walker (Alison Luff).

Ali Louis Bourzgui as Tommy Walker (center) is joined by the company of “The Who’s Tommy,” with (far right) Tommy’s parents, Captain Walker (Adam Jacobs) and Mrs. Walker (Alison Luff). The reimagined stage musical is having its world premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre.

Liz Lauren

For decades, the story of Tommy Walker has enthralled audiences. The titular character in “The Who’s Tommy” has been the focus of the groundbreaking 1969 concept album, the zany 1975 film and the hit Broadway musical, which debuted in 1993.

Through music, all these outlets have told the story of a disenfranchised post-war youth who witnesses a horrific act of violence at the hands of his father and becomes disassociated from reality before finding his gift for pinball and becoming enmeshed in his own savior complex.

Untitled

‘THE WHO’S TOMMY’

When: Though Aug. 6

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

Tickets: $30-180

Info: GoodmanTheatre.org

Now, 30 years after first coming to the stage, the story is being reimagined for a whole new generation, re-teaming the original Tony Award-winning creative duo of Pete Townshend (music, lyric, book) and director Des McAnuff (book) for a modernized take, now in previews at the Goodman Theatre’s Albert Theatre.

“More than anything, I think we’ve recognized that Tommy has a new relevance, and that’s true on a number of layers,” said McAnuff in a recent interview at the Goodman, discussing how “the world has caught up with Tommy” decades after he first brought the acclaimed production to the stage at the La Jolla Playhouse (where he is now director emeritus), followed by a Broadway run from 1993-1995.

Choreographer Lorin Latarro (from left), director Des McAnuff and associate director Michael Bello lead a rehearsal of “The Who’s Tommy” at the Goodman Theatre.

Choreographer Lorin Latarro (from left), director Des McAnuff and associate director Michael Bello lead a rehearsal of “The Who’s Tommy” at the Goodman Theatre.

Liz Lauren

“The whole world is now trying to escape a hostile universe by looking into a mirror, albeit a black mirror [with our phones],” McAnuff shared. “And Tommy becomes this kind of guru, almost political leader, and people follow him almost mindlessly. That seems to me to be particularly relevant today, too.”

In a promotional video, Townshend also added that society’s greater understanding of mental health today also played a part in the revamp.

“When I wrote ‘Tommy,’ nobody had ever written about trauma. Nobody talked about bullying,” he said.

The idea to reinvent the show came about pre-pandemic and initially took on a cinematic tone.

“When [Pete] came to me five years ago and we started talking about [re-doing] this, one of the things we started thinking about was a motion picture,” McAnuff revealed during the Chicago interview, adding that the original flick wasn’t really something Townshend was all that involved in, but rather steered by director Ken Russell.

“We actually did develop a [new] screenplay, which exists and we are actually working on that, too, but getting a movie made is no cinch. That led us to again wanting to do it on stage. We are both very invested in this story.”

Though the Goodman run presents a reimagined version of “The Who’s Tommy,” McAnuff said he still aimed at being “faithful but not obedient” to the original, once again relying on a huge component of visual storytelling.

“The hope is the audience will be able to project their imaginations onto it.”

To do so, McAnuff recruited award-winning choreographer Lorin Latarro (“Into The Woods,” “Waitress”) to work alongside the 29-member cast and nine-piece live band to help develop the physical flow. Latarro, who purposefully refrained from watching the original reference material, said she was focused on a “contemporary movement vocabulary” in order to make the story feel as if it fit in any era.

“I really pitched the idea about family, about mom, dad and their son and what it means,” Latarro said, during a separate interview at the Goodman. “I can’t sit through it without crying. I watch it and just see this family struggling.”

Of course, there’s also the thrill of choreographing to some of the most quintessential rock numbers of all time.

“It’s impossible not to dance to,” says Latarro, noting that “Pinball Wizard,” “The Acid Queen” and “Sensation” were standouts. “Each of these songs are stories, Pete clearly had something to say.”

Cast in the lead role is relative newcomer Ali Louis Bourzgui, who previously appeared in the Goodman’s “Layalina” earlier this year and admits playing Tommy Walker was “one of the most challenging roles I’ve ever done.”

“I have gone about it thinking of how it would be to experience the world through a musical consciousness,” he said during a chat at the Goodman Theatre.

To prepare, Bourzgui dove deep into The Who archives, watching every video performance he could find, including the breakthrough Woodstock 1969 appearance.

“I wanted to capture some sort of the magic spark they have when they perform,” said the actor and songwriter whose own music is on Spotify.

“Pete, for a few years now, has been an inspiration … he writes these music parts that are so unique and bold but is so confident about them in a way that revolutionized music.”

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