nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 13, 2005
Lennon, I am very sad to report, is a major disappointment. For a show that wants to pay homage to a singularly original and interesting man, it's almost stultifyingly by-the-numbers: it feels like a Lifetime TV biodrama. Despite some calculated attempts to do so, it fails to tug at us emotionally or to conjure the creative spirit of its subject or the revolutionary fervor of his times. The one moment that does feel genuine is the final one, when we see a couple of minutes of film footage of the real John Lennon (seated at the piano next to his wife, Yoko Ono) singing the last phrases of "Imagine." But the rest of this musical, which is conceived, written, and directed by Don Scardino and featured the full support of Ono, is distressingly plastic.
The idea, as I understand it, was to tell John Lennon's life through his songs. Scardino tells us in a program note that Lennon said, in "I Am the Walrus," that he was "he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together," and therefore that his spirit could be captured not by one actor but by a diverse group of nine, including three white men, two black men, one black woman, one white woman, one Asian woman, and one Hispanic woman. But in fact, Will Chase—who looks the most like the real Lennon—serves as de facto narrator and stand-in for John throughout the piece. Julie Danao-Salkin plays Yoko; Chuck Cooper, an African American, plays Strom Thurmond and a judge named Irwin Kaufman (irony, get it?). And when someone is called upon to sing "Woman is the Nigger of the World," it's Marcy Harriell, the cast's token black woman, who gets the job. So much for embracing, rather than emphasizing, our differences.
As for the story-telling, it's linear and dumbfoundingly unimaginative. Characters face the audience and narrate John Lennon's history, incident by incident, often (but not always) in the guise of Lennon himself (the actors don a pair of signature wire rims to let us know that they're "being" him in any particular moment). It goes, almost literally, like this: "And then I met Paul McCartney"... short scene depicting meeting Paul... "and then we went to Hamburg"... musical number ("Money")... "and then we met Brian Epstein"... "Twist and Shout"... and so on, leadenly, for more than two hours.
Scardino and choreographer Joseph Malone's idea of musical staging is usually to have one performer begin a song, then be joined downstage by a couple of others, and then finally by everyone, all lined up across the front of the stage. Malone's dances are minimal to the point of being almost non-existent, by the way; more movement would certainly improve things. So would more people—the rousing, high-energy protest rally Act I finale to "Give Peace a Chance" might give off some real sparks if there were actually a crowd onstage singing it—and so would an actual set and imaginative costumes. (Natasha Katz's lighting is showy and generally effective.)
But the real letdown in Lennon is the songbag. There are no Beatles songs: no "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," no "I Am the Walrus," no "Across the Universe"; none of the brilliant examples of Lennon's soaring poetic talent; none of the weird and wonderful experiments in subversion of form; none, in short, of the words and music that made John Lennon not only famous but significant. Everyone I have told this fact to reacts in exactly the same way. "No Beatles songs?" they say. "Why would I want to see this show without Beatles songs?"
Indeed. I don't know if this is a rights issue or a vanity issue (i.e., the show is about Lennon so we need to focus on his solo career), but whatever the reason, it's a devastatingly damaging decision. The show's score does include most of Lennon's post-Beatles hits, including "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," "Watching the Wheels," "Woman," and "(Just Like) Starting Over," but there just aren't that many of them. Most are performed and staged unimaginatively, so that we learn nothing new about them here; I would have preferred simply hearing Lennon's own renditions instead. The progressive, ever-changing chameleon quality of Lennon's work is completely ignored here, by which I mean everything pretty much looks and sounds the same. And though the show's book takes great pains to tell us how politically dangerous Lennon was thought to be by the likes of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, his actual credentials as activist are more or less reduced to the famous Bed-In that he and Ono staged in the late '60s.
There just must be more to John Lennon's life and work than what we get here. Isn't art supposed to be universal—its resonance due to the myriad ways it speaks to and affects and touches the thousands who (in this case) hear it? In Lennon, John sings "Woman" to Yoko as an apologia for having strayed in their marriage. Doesn't such a presentation diminish, rather than showcase, a great song like that?
Will Chase, I should mention, is actually quite good in the show, as much as he's able to be. Chuck Cooper is interesting performing "Instant Karma," and I quite liked Julia Murney's rendition of "Beautiful Boy," a song I was not familiar with. The rest of the ensemble is generally bland; Terrence Mann comes across as uncomfortable much of the time, as if waiting for his (very limited) moments in the limelight.
John Lennon deserves better, though it's doubtful now that he'll be getting it, at least for a decade or two.
However: if even one of the folks sitting in the audience with me last night takes the message of "Give Peace a Chance" to heart and actually does something to try to effect change in this scary world of ours—if they don't vote for somebody, or boycott something, or write their congressman, or somehow get actively involved trying to end some unnecessary war somewhere—well, if that happens, then none of the foregoing will actually matter. Lennon's words and the music will have been heard, authentically and honestly.