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‘Lennon’ plots tune-up

Musical took its knocks but may come back singing

Will “Lennon” be the next comeback kid? That’s what the troubled musical’s producers are hoping.

Three summers ago, “Movin’ Out” had its pre-Broadway run in Chicago and got trashed by critics there. Director-choreographer Twyla Tharp read those downbeat notices, learned from them and promptly turned the show around. On Oct. 24, 2002, the Billy Joel tuner opened to rave reviews on Broadway, where it continues to run.

Can the same kind of turn-around that Tharp maneuvered now be replicated by the creatives behind the John Lennon tuner, which opened in April to equally downbeat notices in San Francisco? And while we’re on the subject: Is there room for yet another songbook musical on Broadway?

Only a few weeks ago, the Broadway preem of “Lennon” at the Broadhurst Theater looked uncertain. After the West Coast reviews, lead producer Allan McKeown canceled the show’s second out-of-town engagement, in Boston. The first Broadway preview was then pushed back two weeks, to July 7, to accommodate another extension of Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays.” Cancellations followed by delays are rarely a good omen in the theater.

McKeown, naturally, doesn’t see it that way. Even though musicals can lose up to $250,000 dollars on an out-of-town engagement, he says money was not a consideration for the Boston cancellation.

“It was a wash, really,” he says of not taking his $7 million show to Beantown. “The problem with Boston was the tech time, which was better spent in New York City in rehearsals.” There have been a lot of rehearsals since San Francisco. he unplanned long hiatus between West and East Coast engagements has come to resemble the trajectory interruptus of “Wicked,” which shut down for three months between its San Francisco world preem and its Gotham debut in October 2003.

The difference is, the “Wicked” producers had always planned a long shutdown in order to work on the show.

Luckily for the “Lennon” guys, Crystal & Co. have picked up most of their hiatus costs: When “700 Sundays” extended at the Broadhurst, that company assumed actor and musician salaries for the 12 days it kept “Lennon” out of the theater.

Apparently, Crystal’s money was well spent.

“The show is 35% to 40% different from what audiences saw in San Francisco,” claims McKeown.

While producers are usually quick to badmouth critics, McKeown and his director-scribe, Don Scardino, acknowledge that the San Francisco crix had a point. In fact, maybe they had two or three points.

“I still think I’m 30. I thought everybody knew John Lennon as well as I did,” says the 57-year-old Scardino. “But suddenly, there is a whole new generation that didn’t know his story and couldn’t fill in the holes.”

While act one of “Lennon” had originally progressed in a nonlinear fashion, “It has now been restructured chronologically,” Scardino says of the new version.

His comments recall what Tharp said about reworking “Movin’ Out” after Chi crix reported that they couldn’t follow her tale of prom queens and Vietnam vets. The difference is that the one show is fictional while “Lennon” is a bio.

Promos in Gotham have already stressed that fact: “His words. His music. His story.” In essence, those six words are the show’s defense to crix charges that “Lennon” is a Yoko Ono hagiography.

“The show is John’s point of view. I didn’t write John’s speeches,” says Scardino. And so, when theatergoers hear Lennon praise his wife — “My biography now reads, ‘Born, lived and met Yoko’ ” — they are getting unadulterated Lennon.

Ono’s impact on “Lennon,” however, cannot be denied.

“She controls the music, she had a big say, a helpful say,” says McKeown. “At the end of the day, we’re cognizant that she is keeper of the flame. She doesn’t have overall control of the show, but she is advising us.”

In San Francisco, the Yoko Ono character appeared at the beginning of the show, which was told in flashback. “Now, it is told chronologically, and Yoko enters at the appropriate time in John’s story,” says Scardino. “Hopefully the criticism that there is too much Yoko (and not enough Beatles) will go away.” .”

Arguably, the biggest critical brickbat leveled at”Lennon” was, in Scardino’s words, the show’s most “ambitious idea.”

At various points in the production, each of the nine actors in the ensemble portrayed Lennon. Crix found it confusing, and Scardino has made adjustments, focusing on four male actors to play, respectively, the “Younger John, the Damaged John, the Revolutionary John and the Older and Wiser John.

“Women in the ensemble do take up as his voice,” says Scardino, “but only as an accent.”

Whether Scardino the writer can pull off what Tharp the choreographer did will be revealed at the Aug. 4 Broadway premiere.

One obstacle “Lennon” didn’t have to face in San Francisco was critics’ general dismissal of songbook tuners, evident this season in scathing notices for Beach Boys musical “Good Vibrations” and tepid ones for Elvis-fest, “All Shook Up.”

“They’re clearly not enamored of this trend,” Scardino admits. “But this is different. In ‘Lennon,’ the songs are not divorced from their context. They tell John’s story.”

That fact and some instant karma might be enough to make peace with the critics in Lennon’s adopted city.

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