Even fake Beatles can bring back good memories of the real thing, when they’re truly talented.
The Beatles, arguably one of the most talented and influential bands in musical history, produced a treasure trove of unforgettable tunes. Mostly written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, their dozens of classic hits include “Yesterday,” “Hey, Jude,” “Get Back,” “Come Together” and “Let it Be.”
If you can check your nostalgia at the door, the tribute show “Let It Be” that opened Wednesday night on Broadway at the St. James Theatre stands on its own as a lively, multimedia concert and a rocking good time. A rotating cast of 10 accomplished musicians recreate the Beatles onstage, performing concert or studio versions of 40 of their songs.
Starting with the early Cavern Club days in Liverpool, they skillfully progress through pop songs performed on the “Ed Sullivan Show” to the colorful psychedelic era of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” to the end times of “Abbey Road.”
Projections of authentic, carefully edited news clips provide glimpses of the increasingly turbulent social times during the band’s years together, through the 1960s to their early 1970 breakup. Due to copyright issues, the Beatles’ real names are never used either in the program or during the 2½-hour-long show, nor is the word “Beatles” heard or seen onstage.
But there’s no question who these enthusiastic musicians are portraying. In fact, it’s a little creepy for those who were around during the originals to see the two deceased Beatles accurately reincarnated. Visually invoking Lennon, Reuven Gershon performs with appropriate cool, while John Brosnan is nicely intense as lead guitarist George Harrison.
Enacting still-living Beatles, James Fox incorporates eye-rolling, winking mannerisms and soaring vocals reminiscent of the young McCartney, while drummer Luke Roberts has a head-bopping good time as Ringo Starr. Those four musicians performed in an energetic preview that often had the crowd up on its feet, clapping and singing along.
The alternating cast includes Graham Alexander, Ryan Coath and Chris McBurney. Ryan Alex Farmery hovers cheerfully in the background, handling keyboards in rotation with John Korba and Daniel A. Weiss.
There’s not much dialogue, aside from some merry onstage banter and a few philosophical musings, and the show doesn’t pretend at all to cover the storied history of the band, preferring to focus on the music. Musical supervisor and U.S. director John Mahr oversees a variety of musical styles, including a complex orchestral simulation for “A Day In the Life” and a lovely segment of acoustic songs capped by “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
The production is visually appealing, with an array of colorful, sometimes trippy graphics and the grainy news clips or photos projected above, behind and sometimes all around the band. Psychedelic images dance up and down the theater walls during favorites like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “With a Little Help From My Friends.” For rear audience members, close-ups of the singers often appear on quaint-looking television screens hanging atop the proscenium.
The “Let It Be” tribute debuted last fall at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles, so the show didn’t take “The Long and Winding Road” to get to Broadway. In “The End,” the audience can “Come Together” over seminal lyrics like “The love you take/is equal to the love you make.” And take away the thought that, as the Beatles pointed out so long ago, “All You Need Is Love.”
Hey Jude, they made it bad.
The cover-band concert “Let It Be” aims to celebrate the Beatles and their hits. But instead of being joyful and spontaneous, the show feels rote and robotic.
Broadway has been down this long and rewinding road recently. In 2010, “Rain,” another so-so Beatles tribute, traced the group from Liverpool lads to global superstars.
The two shows share more than that basic structure. A couple of dozen songs overlap. Both productions splice in ’60s TV ads for laughs, feature sing-alongs and use an onstage electronic keyboard player to sweeten the music.
The obvious echoes suggest why the Fab Four shows are locked in a legal battle. But “Let It Be” focuses on happier and more harmonious times. Four musicians perform about 40 enduring chart-toppers more or less in chronological order. It’s a two-hour nostalgia ride.
Eight actors rotate the Beatles roles. On Monday, the four looked little like the pop icons they’re aping. The “Paul” didn’t play guitar lefty. And under John Maher’s direction, songs bled hurriedly into the next without finesse.
Projections of clouds and flowers add a bit of eye candy. Surround-sound speakers re-create the wails of ecstatic fans. Costume changes and wig swaps signal career chapters.
The show starts in Liverpool at the Cavern club, where the boys reel off “I Saw Her Standing There” and “It Won’t Be Long.”
At “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964, there are replays of “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “All My Loving.” Up next, the group’s historic Shea Stadium performance, complete with video clips of girls panting and nearly passing out.
Things turn psychedelic for the Sgt. Pepper period. In this incarnation, the boys’ famous neon-bright uniforms look like a tatty home ec project.
The show naturally leads to Abbey Road, an encore of “Hey Jude” and the show’s reassuring title tune.
Beatles hits are indestructible. But if this is as good as tributes get, let them be.
A little less than three years ago, “Rain” strung together Beatles hits, hired impersonators to cover them and brought the whole shebang to Broadway.
Now “Let It Be” has landed on the Great White Way with pretty much the same product. So similar are these shows — which aren’t endorsed by the surviving Beatles or the estates of the others — that the producers of “Rain” are suing the upstart for “copyright infringement.”
This mostly relates to the shared concepts — a nonstop series of songs jazzed up with video footage of 1960s newscasts and vintage ads — and nearly identical set lists. Both productions even include the same Plastic Ono Band song, “Give Peace a Chance.”
Never mind the irony of imitators suing for imitation. The bigger issue is: Why can’t anybody write a decent Beatles musical?
The band itself placed its songs in imaginative movies, so a “Mamma Mia!” scenario wouldn’t be unthinkable. If you wanted to take the biographical road à la “Jersey Boys,” the dynamics between Paul McCartney and John Lennon would make for a juicy story.
None of this figures in either “Rain” or “Let It Be.” Both are essentially concerts in which the audience is constantly reminded that it’s watching a cover band. The drum kit doesn’t say “The Beatles” but “Let It Be,” and Ringo Starr — or rather, “Ringo Starr” — takes us right out of the period mood when he quips, “Do you remember when CDs were black? We used to call them LPs.”
The rotating cast of musicians acquit themselves well, segueing from the bowl cuts and tight black costumes of the early ’60s to the mustaches and mock-military uniforms of the “Sgt. Pepper’s” period. The most jarringly wrong detail is that at a recent performance, the rightie James Fox embodied Paul McCartney — one of the most famous lefties in rock history.
At least this doesn’t get in the way of the songs, which are performed with note-for-note faithfulness, right down to the solos. The other night, John Brosnan’s George Harrison ably duplicated the haunting part initially played by Eric Clapton on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
If you want originality, or even some of the album cuts many fans prefer to the singles, tough luck — that isn’t the point of the show.
Before forking out for a ticket, though, consider that the weekly Beatles brunch at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill offers a good band and an all-you-can-eat buffet for just $40. Might as well get comfort food for the soul and the gullet at the same time.
Why do they all look like Paul?
Not that I’m complaining, but in the first half of “Let It Be: A Celebration of the Music of the Beatles,” which opened with a burst of musical magical realism on Wednesday night at the St. James Theater, three of the four musicians out front resembled a young Mr. McCartney. None looked particularly like John Lennon or George Harrison. Clearly that was supposed to be Ringo Starr (Chris McBurney) on the drum platform, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. But, you know — Ringo, drums, pretty easy.
This confusion was remedied later, as hairstyles, eyewear and facial hair evolved and signature solos were performed, with 10 musicians rotating through the roles. But in “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Please Please Me,” “It Won’t Be Long” and other early hits, it was not at all clear whom Graham Alexander, John Brosnan and Ryan Coath were supposed to be evoking.
Yes, another Beatles tribute is on Broadway. Wasn’t it just yesterday that “Rain” opened at the Neil Simon? Pretty much. It was 2010, and Charles Isherwood, reviewing it for The Times, called it “enhanced karaoke.” In long-ago 1977, “Beatlemania” — “not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation” — opened at the Winter Garden and ran for two years. In his review for The Times, John Rockwell decreed it “an unobjectionable diversion.”
Gentle mods and rockers of a certain age, I saw them both. I cringed at the 1977 show. (I mean, all four of the real guys were still alive and in their 30s.) I let myself get carried away at the second. And I can happily report that “Let It Be” is by far the best of the bunch. The word “celebration” in the subtitle is well chosen, and the performers are outstanding, as nostalgia substitutes and as musicians in their own right.
This new show, which opened last fall in London as a tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first record, takes the standard route to telling the story of this most influential band of the 1960s. Act I begins with scenes at the Cavern Club, the murky Liverpool lounge where the group played early concerts; “The Ed Sullivan Show,” with the requisite film clips of ecstatic teenage girls nearly going into convulsions; and the 1965 Shea Stadium concert. Act I ends with a “Sgt. Pepper” (1967) set, including a heady psychedelic rendition of “A Day in the Life.”
Act II begins with selections from “Magical Mystery Tour” (1967) and the White Album (1968), but breaks out of chronological order with numbers from “Rubber Soul” (1965) and “Revolver” (1966), including “Norwegian Wood,” “In My Life” and “Eleanor Rigby.” The big finish includes “Get Back,” “Come Together” and “Revolution,” but the surprising emotional high in a show of 40 or so songs is Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” with a knockout performance by Mr. Brosnan.
I worried a bit about whether my 28-year-old guest would appreciate the show; when I challenged her to name all four Beatles, she had trouble remembering George. (The audience was rife with young fans, though. The cast dedicated “When I’m 64” to them.) But fresh from Los Angeles and not yet a seasoned theatergoer, my guest saw one thing clearly. “This is not really a Broadway show, is it?” she said. “It’s a concert.”
Yes, well, we’ve resigned ourselves to that — and to solo stand-up comics’ taking over the Broadhurst and the Helen Hayes. The difference between a jukebox musical and a rock concert is that at a rock concert, nobody has to instruct the audience to stand. But at concerts, you don’t get amazing 1960s television commercials during the costume changes. The Carnation Instant Breakfast ad gets a big laugh.
In the beginning, there was "Beatlemania," a clone-culture artifact that dressed up four Beatle imitators, ran for 18 months on Broadway in the late '70s and, for all we know, may still be on tour somewhere out in the cosmos as we speak. In 2010 came "Rain," another paint-by-numbers faux-Beatles simulation that ran nine months under the guise of a new musical.
Now we have "Let It Be," which -- I lose track -- is a rip-off of an imitation of a cover band of a sound-alike replica for people who may also take comfort in beloved dead animals stuffed by taxidermists. In fact, the producers of the multimedia "Rain" believe this one to be so similar to their copy that, last month, they filed a suit against the "Let It Be" producers for, no kidding, copyright infringement.
Asked about the status of the lawsuit, a spokesman for the new show told me, "No comment."
Indeed, no comment feels like useful commentary about the zombie-karaoke culture that lurks just a pulse away from that big old animatronic Abe Lincoln at Disneyland.
But "Let It Be," still running in London, strikes me as the cheesiest yet of the Beatles so-called celebrations, intended for audiences who prefer live fakes to experiencing the real thing on great documentaries and albums.
The printed program lists 10 (rotating) musicians, but does not indicate which four will wear the mop-top wigs and paste on the facial hair at which performance. At Monday's preview, according to the show's press agent, James Fox was imitating Paul, Reuven Gershon was in the John spot, with John Brosnan as George and Luke Roberts up there with Ringo's drums.
This omission says a lot about the generic ambitions of the slide-and-light show, which runs almost two and a half long hours and runs through about 40 wondrous Beatle songs. Old-timey TV screens show the same old documentary footage of the moon walk, hula hoops and screaming girls at Shea Stadium. Videos of the singing lads are not in lip-synch with the ones onstage and the man who does the Ed Sullivan voice-over sounds instead like Richard Nixon.
I hasten to report that many in the audience happily rose from their seats, clapped and danced when encouraged to do so. But when projections of strawberries streamed across the proscenium during "Strawberry Fields Forever," the lyric "nothing is real" felt really sad.
Watching the new Beatles homage Let It Be (* * ½ out of four), certain audience members are bound to feel a sense of déjà vu — not for the Fab Four themselves, but for the last Broadway salute to them.
That, in case you missed it, was Rain, the 2010 concert extravaganza named after a tribute band that was itself a byproduct of 1977's Beatlemania. Like Rain, Let It Be, which opened Wednesday at the St. James Theatre, casts actor/musicians as John, Paul, George and Ringo and follows the lads, in performance, through the different stages of their relatively brief but remarkably prolific career.
Creators of Rain, in fact, filed suit against producers of Let It Be in June, contending that the latter show borrows many elements from the former one and asking for a 50/50 split of the revenue and joint authorship credit for the Rain Corp., which represents the group.
Yet while the shows are strikingly similar in tone and structure — right down to the hokey early-'60s TV commercials and images of flower children and Vietnam that flash on video screens between sets, showing us the changing times that accompanied The Beatles' reign — there's a certain irony in claiming creative ownership of a purely re-creative act.
Let It Be, which premiered in London last year, aspires to be nothing more than a nostalgia trip, and as such it's about as engaging as you could expect. The show features a rotating roster of performers; at a recent preview, John Brosnan, James Fox, Reuven Gurshon and Luke Roberts played the blokes from Liverpool, giddily shaking their moptops in early scenes at the Cavern Club and on The Ed Sullivan Show before evolving into more reflective hippies, with suitable costume changes.
The playbill doesn't identify which characters the cast members play, which is just as well, given the simplistic representations here. Gurshon's John Lennon is, of course, the dry one, providing a constant foil to the boyish charm of Fox's Paul McCartney, who keeps telling the crowd, "Thank you very mooch."
Roberts' Ringo Starr is endearingly goofy, while as George Harrison, Brosnan plays the beatific searcher, at one point offering a peace sign and a greeting of "Hare Krishna." The between-song patter can seem as contrived as their accents, and there are patronizing appeals to older audience members — as when Lennon asks if they remember "when CDs were black" and had two sides, holding up an old LP with reverent affection.
Luckily, Let It Be's company, which includes supporting musicians, is competent enough as singers and instrumentalists to make the numbers compelling. A few of Fox's high notes were shaky at the preview, and the energy sagged a bit during an Unplugged-style acoustic segment that included such haunting classics as Blackbird and Norwegian Wood.
But more driving, muscular favorites, from Ticket to Ride to Come Together, were executed with enough panache to make you appreciate their magic, even without fully recapturing it.
Which pretty much sums up both the appeal and the limitations of Let It Be — and other shows like it.