“Tommy” is turning 50 this year, and it’s only fitting that the Kennedy Center invites some major stars from stage and television for a limited-run show of the album’s musical adaptation.
Presented by Broadway Center Stage, “The Who’s Tommy” is an epic and eye-popping celebration of the beloved musical about everyone’s favorite pinball wizard. This star-studded party—featuring Casey Cott, Mandy Gonzalez and Christian Borle—runs through Monday in the more intimate Eisenhower Theater.
The semi-staged concert series looked to classic rock gods The Who to end its 2018-19 season, which also included “The Music Man” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” on a high note. And there are plenty of them in this fun—and at times overblown—rock ’n’ roll extravaganza, based on the band’s seminal 1969 double-album. “Tommy” is the brainchild of guitarist Pete Townshend, with additional music and lyrics by bassist John Entwistle and drummer Keith Moon. Famed director Des McAnuff co-authored the musical, which first launched at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 1992 and debuted on Broadway a year later.
“The Who’s Tommy” tells the story of a young British boy who has been deeply traumatized after witnessing a murder at home. When his not-so-dead military father suddenly returns, he shoots his mother’s new boyfriend during a fight; Captain Walker was presumed dead, but he was actually captured by Nazis. Tommy sees all this violence play out while looking at the mirror—which figures heavily into Paul Tate dePoo III’s striking and overloaded set design—and as a result, becomes the “deaf, dumb and blind kid” who only comes alive when playing the pinball machine. Several years pass before Tommy eventually snaps out of his catatonic state and turns into a media darling and international pinball-playing phenom with messiah-like status.
Beyond its blistering rock-opera soundtrack, the musical deals with heavy issues such as bullying and sexual abuse, along with the dangers of celebrity or being an “influencer” (in today’s talk).
“The Who’s Tommy” is a weird and wonderful show, whose story and music are still captivating audiences a half-century later. This makes the casting of Casey Cott of “Riverdale” in the titular role a terrific choice to help introduce “Tommy” to a new generation.
Cott, who plays Kevin Keller on the CW’s dark and edgy take on the Archie Comics, is a delight to watch onstage as he showcases another of his talents. The fresh-faced young actor has a bright singing voice and imbues his character with vulnerability and vibrant newfound energy, when Tommy’s finally free. The exhilarating “Sensation,” where Tommy wows everyone with his pinball playing gift, is one of the show’s biggest crowd-pleasers. And here’s a fun fact: This is not the first time a Cott has performed on a Kennedy Center stage. His older brother, Corey, appeared in the “Gigi” revival a few years back with Vanessa Hudgens.
There are two more Tommys who should also be recognized: The younger versions are nicely portrayed by child actors Declan Fennell (Tommy, age 4), and Hudson Loverro (Tommy, age 10), especially. Loverro has a bit of a meatier role, as his character is pushed around and beaten by Cousin Kevin and his friends, and also quietly suffers at the hands of his creepy touchy-feely Uncle Ernie.
The moments where the younger Tommys are visited by older Tommy, and vice versa, give the show greater emotional depth. The staging of the final scene is particularly heartwarming.
Captain Walker and Mrs. Walker are exceptionally played by Broadway veterans Borle and Gonzalez. Their voices come together so beautifully on the moving duet “I Believe My Own Eyes,” when their characters express their frustration and sadness about Tommy and their marriage. Gonzalez follows this up with Mrs. Walker’s angry solo “Smash the Mirror,” lashing out at an unresponsive Tommy; her singing of that repetitive, escalating “rise” line is chill-inducing.
With two musical powerhouses onstage, you can’t help but want to hear much more from them. Gonzalez, an original from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” is currently starring as Angelica Schuyler in Broadway’s “Hamilton”; and Borle is a two-time Tony winner for “Something Rotten!” and “Peter and the Starcatcher.” It would be fantastic to see these two return to the Kennedy Center and really put their talents on display.
As wicked Cousin Kevin, Wesley Taylor is a scene-stealer, whether he’s snatching Tommy’s Christmas present out from under his nose and bopping him on the head or leading the pack in some of the show’s high-spirited musical numbers. On Thursday night, the excitement in the audience was palpable when the frenzied opening guitar riffs of “Pinball Wizard” were first heard, with Taylor kicking off the song with Pinball Lads Nick Martinez and Kaleb Wells. Musical numbers are aplenty and the tireless ensemble ably powers through the intricate and buoyant choreography, handed down by show director Josh Rhodes.
With all the flurry of moving pieces and bodies, and swirling projected images, it can get kinda busy onstage. There’s a lot of story and musical numbers to get through, which made the first act feel weighed down. Still, “The Who’s Tommy” makes for an enjoyable ride fueled by the strong performances from its starry cast and iconic songs served by rock royalty.