The English rock band The Who released its fourth studio album, Tommy, in May of 1969. It was a commercial success, and in subsequent years, The Who frontman Pete Townshend developed the music and lyrics for a rock opera that premiered on Broadway in 1993. The Workhouse Arts Center’s The Who’s Tommy, now playing at its Lorton stage, is a fun production of this rock ‘n’ roll classic.
This is the story of Tommy, who as a young boy witnesses his father—who was thought to be dead, as a prisoner of war—return and kill his mother’s lover. Tommy is emotionless as his father gets acquitted of the murder; his family soon realizes that he is deaf, mute, and blind. He is taunted by a series of awful babysitters, and despite it all, his talent emerges; Tommy is revealed as a champion pinball player. He becomes famous, is challenged and overwhelmed by that fame, and in the end realizes the value of trusting his true self.
The Workhouse production features a number of strong performances. As the protagonists, Ollie Maxted as Young Tommy (in the performance this critic saw) and Julianna Cooper as the older Tommy play off each other beautifully in moments like the Second Act’s “See Me, Feel Me.” As Captain Walker, Pat Mahoney showcases a smooth voice throughout. And Audrey Baker is a scene stealer as the Acid Queen (along with several other roles) during her eponymous Scene XI song.
Direction from Jolene Vettese pulls this show together smoothly. Highlights of the creative team include set design from Matt Liptak, with flipper bats on the sides and bumpers in the center of the stage. Costume design from Audrey Miller, with its frequent changes and floral dresses (as the play moves to the ’60s), helps facilitate the action. And Merissa Anne Driscoll’s music direction is, literally, at the center of it all; she leads a six-person band, which plays directly behind the cast. Kudos as well to Brian Bachrach and Clare Pfeifer for their sound design, which underlies the fantastic sound of this show.
There is a reason the original The Who’s Tommy ran on Broadway for 899 performances. The music is sensational; “Pinball Wizard,” particularly, is a great tune. There is also a reason this show is getting revived on Broadway, for only the first time, this March; the topics are challenging for mainstream audiences.
In addition to witnessing a murder, Tommy is sexually and verbally abused by his babysitters. As Uncle Ernie, Noah Mutterperl is creepy (and looks the part as well, with a thin mustache and glasses), particularly during the song “Fiddle About.” And Cam Shegogue is downright mean as Cousin Kevin.
The Who’s Tommy perseveres as a rock opera because these are themes that had not been featured in musical theater prior to the development of this show by Townshend and Des McAnuff (who co-wrote the original book to the show). The abuse is all too real for Townshend; who can no longer perform songs from Tommy, due to the childhood trauma he endured from his grandmother. Yet his music and lyrics are a moving tribute to others who have endured pain like him, and realize the greatness within themselves. And it is an awesome rock concert.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and one 15-minute intermission.
The Who’s Tommy plays through February 11, 2024, at the Workhouse Arts Center’s W-3 Theater located at 9518 Workhouse Way, Lorton, VA. Purchase tickets ($35 for general admission, $30 for military and seniors, and $20 for students) at the box office, online, or by calling 703-584-2900.
The Playbill for Workhouse Arts Center’s production of “The Who’s Tommy” can be viewed here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional at Workhouse Arts Center for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so.