Scripter/helmer Stephen A. Roberts has come up with an intriguing premise for a musical tribute to the late Beatle John Lennon. While the captivating performance of Tim Piper as Lennon works, Roberts needs to rethink the hokey plot line and achieve a better sound balance between the instruments and the vocals. Piper, who supplied Lennon’s singing voice in the NBC pic “In His Life: The John Lennon Story,” is an amazing look-alike, and proves himself to be an adept instrumentalist on guitar and piano.
Set in September 1980, the production focuses on Lennon’s efforts to promote his comeback album, “Double Fantasy,” by giving a live performance in a small Manhattan nightclub for a gathering of friends and associates. Working against him are his own jitters at not having performed publicly for more than five years and an intense storm that plays havoc with the club’s tenuous electrical system. The only people onstage with him are a three-piece pickup band and a constantly scurrying quintet of black-clad roadies who supply whatever support is needed to keep the show going.
Roberts infuses the proceedings with some clunky biographical tidbits from Lennon, including reflections on his youth, the early days of the Beatles in Hamburg, stardom, Beatlemania, the breakup of the band, idolatry and his deep-seated sense of loss at the death of his mother. Piper is less at home with the dialogue than with the music. And the between-tune banter between Lennon and the band members is awkward at best.
Despite substandard sound reinforcement that rendered the backup vocals almost inaudible, the songs range from workmanlike to superb. Riding on Piper’s soaring voice, the band offers a smattering of songs the Beatles covered early on (“Sweet Little 16,” “Rock & Roll Music,” “Twist and Shout,”), some Beatle hits (“Revolution,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Please Please Me,” “She’s So Heavy,” “She Loves You,” “Help!”) and a healthy dose of his later work (“Jealous Guy,” “How Do You Sleep?,” “Cold Turkey,” “God,” “Instant Karma,” “Starting Over,” “Beautiful Boy,” “Woman, “Watching the Wheels”).
One plot machination that works quite well is a storm-driven power outage that forces Lennon to pick up the acoustic guitar. In the darkened room, with an obliging roadie following his every move with a flashlight, Piper offers a haunting rendition of “Working Class Hero.” Later, he literally disappears within the Lennon persona with the show-closing “Imagine.”
Lead guitarist Don Butler, bassist Greg Piper and drummer Jim Marsala provide quite adequate accompaniment within the confined atmosphere of the Stella Adler Theater’s limited stage area. Butler manages to instill a great deal of creativity into his solos while not overpowering his vocalist.
The show-closing video collage of the aftermath of Lennon’s death distracts from the musical offering more than it honors the passing of a great artist.