I am philosophically opposed to beginning a review with the blunt suggestion that you go see the show I just saw.
“Tommy” turns out to be the best offering yet of the series’ first two seasons. The pulse-rushing melodic energy of Pete Townshend’s score is thrillingly harnessed by a cast led by Christian Borle, Mandy Gonzalez and, as the traumatized Tommy in his grown-up guise as a touring rock sensation, the terrific Casey Cott. Wesley Taylor plays bullying Cousin Kevin with all the magnetic menace of a natural-born demon, and Kimberly Nichole sings “Acid Queen” with a sexy shimmy and a set of pipes that recalls the electric talent of Tina Turner (who sang it in Ken Russell’s 1975 film version).
I can’t remember the last time a musical created a vibe so infectious that the audience couldn’t resist the impulse to rock out with it. (As the evening progressed, you could sense more and more people in the Eisenhower Theater catching the wave.) This is especially true in the turbocharged first act, as the story of little psychically paralyzed Tommy — played splendidly at ages 4 and 10 by Declan Fennell and Hudson Loverro — kicks into high gear. Aided by a dynamic wall of digital images by set designer Paul dePoo, Rhodes stages number after number with a showman’s instinctive lean into pizazz. The superb musicianship of the eight-member onstage rock band, conducted by Lynne Shankel, doesn’t hurt, either.
“That deaf, dumb and blind kid” is the crude way the (fabulous) ensemble refers to each of the Tommys, dressed in white by Andrea Hood — what you might call martyrdom chic. The acrobatic, supple-voiced rabble themselves don’t “see” how cruelly the world can treat a kid who can’t speak for himself. “Tommy” is at its heart about the secret soul of every 15-year-old who has ever felt misunderstood by society and harbors the melodramatic belief that the world doesn’t deserve to “hear” from someone as sensitive as they are.
This theme develops over the course of 20 scenes that roll out like distinct album tracks. The minimal dialogue sequences by book writer Des McAnuff allow for only rudimentary transitions, so the musical doesn’t always feel like a complete integration of script and score. As a result, the interludes depicting the abuse of Tommy at the hands of Uncle Ernie (a suitably creepy Manu Narayan, singing “Fiddle About”) and mistreatment by Taylor’s Kevin are so skeletal as to come across as insensitive.
But remember, these are antiquated representations, born a half-century ago, of the corrupt values of a fraying postwar British establishment. (“Tommy,” the band’s rock opera, debuted on Broadway as “The Who’s Tommy” in 1993 and begins with the boy’s birth in 1941.) What rescues this from irrelevance is the fable-like milieu of the musical and, on this occasion, Rhodes’s extraordinary grasp of how to translate the show’s powerhouse songbook into three exciting dimensions.
The Center Stage concept mandates getting a show on its feet quickly and staging it barely; if actors so desire, they’re allowed to have their scripts onstage. But this “Tommy” comes across as so fully baked that the production belies the mission statement. (You get the feeling it could move somewhere else — and should! — pronto.) Actors carry on and off the few set pieces, which consist of the bare frames of tables, doors and, yes, a pinball machine; if you don’t know why this last prop is essential, wait for the gorgeously staged (and danced) Act 1 finale, “Pinball Wizard,” enhanced by dePoo’s dazzling graphic mock-up of an amusement arcade.
“Tommy” has sagged for me in the past, as it works its way from rigorous, pulsating storytelling to a pat ending, better suited to a rousing round of “Kumbaya.” But Rhodes and his savvy cast — and let’s hear it for the versatile Borle and Gonzalez, called on to sing in the styles of Broadway, music hall and rock-and-roll — never let any of the stage muscle of “Tommy” atrophy. Feel him, touch him, heal him. But most important of all — see him.
The Who’s Tommy, score by Pete Townshend, book by Townshend and Des McAnuff, additional music and lyrics by John Entwistle and Keith Moon. Directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes. Music direction, Lynne Shankel; sets and projections, Paul dePoo; costumes, Andrea Hood; lighting, Jake DeGroot; sound, Kai Harada. About two hours. $69-$219. Through Monday at the Kennedy Center. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.
Who needs a director, anyway? A classical theater in Staunton, Va., lets the actors run the show, and it’s a hit.