'The Sessions': Theater Review

Courtesy of The Sessions/Dee McCourt (Borkowski Arts)
'The Sessions'

This lightly dramatized new Beatles musical features 60 songs, 45 performers and a high-tech stage set that includes a full-scale replica of Abbey Road recording studio.

The world is not exactly short of Beatles stage musicals, but this classy large-scale production breathes fresh life into familiar material, wrapping immortal songs in superbly rendered arrangements and dazzling stage visuals. The Sessions crams 60 classic Fab Four tunes into its 150-minute running time, all forensically faithful reproductions performed by a team of 45 musicians and actors. Staged in the round on a meticulously accurate life-sized replica of Abbey Road's fabled Studio Two, where The Beatles recorded most of their albums, this hi-def audio-visual spectacle had its world premiere at London's Royal Albert Hall last week following a rapturously received charity preview in (where else?) Liverpool.

In gestation for over five years, The Sessions is the brainchild of Los Angeles-based producer Stig Edgren, who has previously staged blockbuster live events for the likes of Barry Manilow, Barbra Streisand, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, plus three different Popes. The show's British director is former ballet dancer and choreographer Kim Gavin, whose past credits include the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. An extensive tour of the U.K. and continental Europe is lined up over the next six weeks, followed by summer dates in Japan and Korea. Placing a pretty safe bet on The Beatles' enduring universal appeal, Edgren is already in talks to bring the show to the U.S., where he initially planned to launch it.

Blending elements of rock concert, dramatic reconstruction and fly-on-the-wall documentary, The Sessions is dedicated to legendary Beatles producer George Martin. Portrayed onstage by Jack Baldwin, Martin serves as fatherly narrator throughout. Most of the show's minimal dialogue is his, adding explanatory detail and sketchy historical context between songs. These narrative elements are mostly drawn from Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, a 2006 memoir by former Abbey Road studio engineer Geoff Emerick.

Credited here as creative consultant, Emerick began working with The Beatles as a teenager, assisting Martin on most of their key albums, and later helped to build the band’s own studio. Many of his first-hand observations make it into the show, including John Lennon’s eccentric request before recording his vocal to "Tomorrow Never Knows": “I want to sound like the Dalai Lama sitting on a mountaintop 25 miles away.” In his book, Emerick also records The Fab Four’s bitter breakup and dismisses The White Album as “virtually unlistenable.” But such prickly details are largely absent from this celebratory, selective, streamlined version of pop history.

Chosen for their musical and vocal skills rather than their physical resemblance, the large ensemble cast features two separate sets of Beatles, which allows for quick changes between numbers and eras. This also creates some surreal anomalies, such as when two Johns or Ringos play on the same track. Wide differences in age and appearance divide the bands. The two Georges, for example, are played by 25-year old Brit Josh Ferrigan and 59-year-old Canadian Tom Teeley, a veteran of the first Broadway production of Beatlemania back in 1977.

The show's principal musical foursome revolves around Liverpudlian brothers Tony and Jimmy Coburn, who have their own long-running Beatles tribute band, and recreate that famous Lennon-McCartney vocal interplay superbly. In terms of vocal prowess, Tony is more convincing as Paul, and his strong voice dominates the production.

But the real star of The Sessions is the striking stage design by Stufish Entertainment Architects, who count Madonna, U2, Lady Gaga and The Rolling Stones among their clients. The Abbey Road studio replica is framed on three sides by transparent scrim walls that serve as giant video screens for most of the performance. Besides offering technical details on each song, these screens provide constant visual accompaniment to the music, using archive video footage and modern graphics to chronicle the band’s journey from monochrome Merseybeat mop-tops to psychedelic princelings of Swinging London. The only distracting irritant in this many-splendored set is the staircase to Martin's elevated sound booth, which folds away and reappears repeatedly throughout the evening, for no clear reason.

The level of detail onstage is painstaking enough to please hardcore Beatles geeks, from the white lab coats worn by Martin's technical minions to the vintage guitars and microphones that the band used at Abbey Road. At times this reverential precision feels a little stifling — the price of everything and the value of nothing. Fortunately, the second act brings a more rowdy and playful tone, rolling up the scrim screens for an uninterrupted run of ebullient Sgt. Pepper's tracks, which feature a 20-piece orchestra and a troupe of psychedelic dancers in kaleidoscopic costumes.

The Sessions is a simple concept, but technically complex and deftly choreographed. Inevitably, it cannot recapture the unique charisma, wit and charm of the real Beatles. The narrative elements are scrappy and disjointed, the fissile personalities only thinly sketched. But even for casual fans, there is great pleasure in hearing fully-rounded live recreations of rarely played tracks like "Because" and "Don't Bother Me" alongside full-throttle reproductions of such all-time classics as "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Eleanor Rigby" and "A Day in the Life."

When the Albert Hall premiere climaxed with a rousing sing-along version of "Hey Jude," those of us in the cheap seats stood up and roared every word. Everyone else, of course, just rattled their jewelry.

Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
Principal singers: Jimmy Coburn, Tony Coburn, Josh Ferrigan, Mark Griffiths, Peter John Jackson, Tyson Kelly, Tom Teeley
Featured players: Brad Brunsdon, Ben Cullingworth
Band members: Steve Corley, Murray Gould, Richard Hammond, Thom Kirkpatrick
Ensemble: Jack Baldwin, Hollie Cassar, Natalia Chua, Lukas Lee, Grant McConvey, Douglas Mills, Katia Sartini, Benjamin Stratton
Director: Kim Gavin
Creative consultant: Geoff Emerick
Set designers: Ray Winkler, Alicia Tkacz, Stufish Entertainment Architecture
Lighting designer: Luc Lafortune
Costume designer: Michael Sharp
Multimedia designer: Luke Halls
Musical director: Tim Sandiford
Executive producer: Stig Edgren
Producer: Jef Hanlon
Presented by Soundstage Theatre Company

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