The concept behind this eccentric musical biography of John Lennon seems to be that, since this selfless and beloved pop icon was a passionate believer in the universal brotherhood of man, all manner of men (and women) might share the experience of telling his story and singing his song. As righteous as that sounds, the notion doesn’t quite pan out, because membership in the universal brotherhood of man seems not to extend to Paul, George and Ringo.
Don Scardino, who devised, wrote and helmed the show, has said it was his creative calculation to limit the songs to those from Lennon’s solo catalog, “because I wanted the musical storytelling to be from John’s viewpoint alone.” Huh? Are we to take this to mean that the viewpoint is distorted and the integrity of the musical storytelling compromised when an artist writes in collaboration with a partner?
If other factors were in play — permissions and copyright issues, or perhaps issues involving Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, who controls the rights to her late husband’s name and music — no indication of it is given — unless you want to read something into the program credit and “special thanks” given to Yoko for her assistance on the project.
Buy it or not, the theory of focusing on Lennon’s solo efforts results in a score that sounds unfinished in a sad and rather ghoulish way. In particular, the songs in act one come across as a cut-and-paste job, lurching from disappointing cover songs (“Money,” “Twist and Shout”) to curiosities like “Mother” (written during primal scream therapy) to unpublished work (“India, India”) that proves to have been no great loss.
Staging the show as a rock concert — with a 10-piece band onstage up to their knees in the clutter of amps, speakers and gnarly electrical connections — juices the sound, but does nothing to disguise the modest quality of this early solo material. In the same way, the exhibition of dancing follow-spots is a lot livelier than the foot-dragging choreography.
(Not that the technology couldn’t be taken down a peg or two: Beaming down intelligent lights from a circular overhead grid makes it look like a spaceship is angling for a stage landing.)
Musical redemption does come at the end of the first act with a defiant “God” (delivered with a solid punch by Michael Potts) and a rousing “Give Peace a Chance” performed by the entire cast. But by then, Scardino has gone so far out of his way to avoid re-creating a Beatles musical experience that, whenever the band does perform together, they are portrayed by four female thesps.
And taken as a whole, the dozen or so numbers don’t work up the energy to create a sense of the musical revolution that inspired a generation and led to an era when, in the wise words of George Harrison, “The world went mad and blamed it on us.”
Act two promises more musical unity, given the sheer political resolution of the songs that open the act: “Power to the People,” “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” (delivered with fine ferocity by Marcy Harriell) and “Attica State.” But a dramatic musical shift occurs with the introduction of an unreleased love song — “I Don’t Want to Lose You” — that Lennon wrote during the 18 months in 1973-74 when he was separated from Ono.
This gorgeous cri de coeur (sung with near-religious conviction by Terrence Mann, Julie Danao-Salkin and Chad Kimball) begins the build to a series of songs written by someone at the height of his mature powers. Coming at you one after another, “Woman,” “Watching the Wheels,” “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Grow Old With Me” and “Imagine” are enough to cure the sick and raise the dead. But alas, they come too late to save the show.
Even if one accepts Scardino’s rationale for excluding material from the Beatles songbook, it hardly explains why the Forgotten Three (of the formerly Fab Four) are individually and collectively dusted off as quaint relics from Lennon’s boyish past. Depicted as kiddiewinks in the first act, which ends with Lennon breaking up the Beatles and finding his political voice, the rejected partners slouch off into the wings, leaving act two entirely to John and Yoko and the political activism that defined their life together.
What emerges, then, of the character of an artist denied the creative dynamic of his artistic collaborators?
That’s hard to say, since the high-concept feature of the production was to cast multiple performers of diverse age, gender and ethnicity in the Lennon role. All are musically competent, but of the nine thesps taking turns at line readings drawn from published interviews, Will Chase is physically and vocally best suited to the role. Leaning to the tender side of Lennon, Chase actually makes some inroads into creating a character of a smart and sensitive guy who really did want to make love instead of war.
But that was only one aspect of Lennon’s multifaceted personality, and the superficiality of the book leaves little opportunity to explore anything of this complex man beyond his noble qualities as soulmate to Yoko and philosopher to a politically disaffected generation that could, indeed, imagine the world he dreamed of.
This is a shockingly narrow view of a man of many parts, and tossing out the Beatles baggage did not broaden Scardino’s perspective on him. No mention is made of Lennon’s nimble wit and tongue-twisting skills as a poet. Only a few samples are shown of his bold and clever line drawings. (Except for one marvelous sketch he did of himself and Yoko in Paris, these are mostly lost among the too-busy photo collages projected on the back wall.) And without a glimpse of him in the Beatles films, there’s no knowing what a droll comic actor he was.
Getting rid of the Beatles and the songs Lennon wrote with Paul McCartney was a dumb idea. But diminishing the wit and intelligence of “the smart Beatle” is close to criminal.