John Lennon (Andrew Knott) is the drive, Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy) is the brains and Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) is the sex. In other words, if you go to see “Backbeat,” tagged “the birth of the Beatles,” you’ll be watching Sutcliffe, the gifted artist who gave up his gig with the group before they hit it big, and instead followed his own dream to become a painter. Then he promptly died. “Backbeat,” in effect, is one story that breaks into two stories, and the Beatles half ends up getting short-changed.
Theatergoers expecting to hear a lot of Beatles songs will have to travel to Vegas to watch Cirque du Soleil’s abysmal “Love” at the Mirage. “Backbeat” is early Beatles, when they were basically performing covers and reinventing American pop and rock. It’s a story of drudgery, of teenage boys sleeping in flop houses and performing six-hour gigs night after night in Hamburg strip clubs. The drama arrives with Sutcliffe, who isn’t a talented rocker and really doesn’t want to be one of the Beatles. Which leaves it to best friend Lennon to keep begging him to stay with the group despite McCartney’s objections. By the end of act one, even Lennon gets the picture, which leaves act two to awkwardly tell two stories: the Beatles’ breakthrough and Sutcliffe’s pursuit of an art career and a girlfriend, photographer Astrid Kirchherr
The film “Backbeat,” from which this stage show is adapted, does a better job of establishing Lennon’s need for Sutcliffe. Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys’ book here barely establishes a friendship early on, and Lennon doesn’t come off so much loyal as just plain dense.
It doesn’t help that Knott presents Lennon as an obnoxious lout, giving a broad, old-fashioned musical perf that recalls the work of Stanley Holloway, whom Knott resembles. This Beatle may sing “Twist and Shout” but he’d be more at home doing “With a Little Bit of Luck.”
Healy has the only real voice on stage, and as McCartney offers a more nuanced perf. But like Knott he resembles the Beatles around the time they split up (plus a few years), not a teenager.
That youthful edge never materializes on stage — except for a misguided moment when director David Leveaux projects a few of Kirchherr’s iconic photo portraits that helped launch the Beatles. They’re pure street. What we get with “Backbeat” is too often mild cartoon.
Softley and Jeffreys have written an effective scene where McCartney and Lennon work on “Love Me Do,” one of the few Beatles-composed songs in the show. It comes late in act two, and until then audiences might think the Beatles became famous because they worked hard and Kirchherr took their picture (and combed their hair).
Softley and Jeffrey’s book makes it clear that Sutcliffe has no performing talents or much interest in music. So it’s a bizarre night in the theater when you find yourself ignoring the actors who embody Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison (Daniel Westwick) and instead fixate on the charismatic Blood, who just stands there on stage in his sunglasses, smoking a cigarette and barely stroking a guitar. He’s referred to as a James Dean wannabe, but Blood anachronistically offers up Joe Dallesandro, whom Andy Warhol turned into an early 1970s poster boy with that movie triptych of hustling and drugs known as Flesh, Trash and Heat.
The design team turns the Ahmanson stage into a virtual black-and-white movie. It’s nice to look at, but Leveaux never finds a way to piece together the two stories, especially in act two. The Beatles glide upstage and down on a platform, Sutcliffe and Kirchherr move across stage on a series of sofas and chairs from Shabby Chic. Equally disappointing, the clubs of Hamburg always seem to be populated with a bunch of transvestites, tarts and leather queens — as if a touring company of “Cabaret” happened to be in town and showed up on a moment’s notice.