Backbeat: Theater Review

Backbeat Production Beatles Play - H 2013
Center Theatre Group
Saga of the Beatles during their embryonic Hamburg woodshedding makes for a bumptious origin tale in first, but turns more sodden as the story plays out the pathos of their doomed fifth member. 

The Beatles' origin story is adapted for the stage from the 1994 film of the same name.

Another film-to-stage adaptation, this time from Iain Softley’s 1994 debut feature starring Stephen Dorff and Ian Hart, Backbeat presents the Beatles as archetypal mythic figures, which indeed they have become, undergoing a Joseph Campbell-styled coming-of-age saga as a band.

The tragic protagonist is the brooding and talented painter Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood). He is press-ganged by his domineering classmate John Lennon (Andrew Knott) into his band The Quarrymen, promptly redubbed "The Beatals" (sic) by the too-cool-for-school Sutcliffe. The early scene where Lennon tutors Sutcliffe in how to play three strings on the bass sets a tonic tone for a first act hyped most effectively by unrelenting stagecraft as the boys ­– including first drummer Pete Best (Oliver Bennett) – start in the lower-depths German club scene. They play six hours a night, eight days a week, for a skeezy clientele, crashing behind the screen of a porno house.

Their repertoire consists entirely of covers of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and similar black American rock ‘n’ rollers. These developing artists learn the ropes in their Teddy Boy hair and duds, and while the play takes on some of the dynamics of a jukebox musical, it’s a crackerjack jukebox and refreshingly bereft of later Beatles originals.

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Chain-smoking Stuart has more of a vocation for art than for music, and although he enjoys the rock ‘n’ roll life, especially in this primal, embryonic version, he hasn’t the talent to contribute enough to the group to satisfy his creative urges. He falls for local photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Leanne Best), who urges him to choose his muse. Meanwhile, the headaches and mood swings presage his transition from James Dean poses to something akin to Bette Davis in Dark Victory.

John remains, as always, the most compelling of personalities, rude and defensively aggressive, ostentatiously acting out his hurt with outsized ambition and drive. Although reducing the drama to stage dimensions requires some simplification and flirting with clichés, the dialogue and characterizations remain consistently intelligent enough to engage us in the bare bones of a relatively standard storyline. And the guys onstage can play more than well enough to credibly evoke the originals, so the audience can experience a sense of discovery of a band everyone knows so well. Thankfully, they don’t imitate or do impressions, rather incarnating this Fab Five as realized individuals.

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There is ample fun and drive to the first act, which is convincingly detailed and propels like gangbusters, superficial but compelling. But once Stuart goes puppy-dog mature in act two, the momentum flags, the pyrotechnics slow down, and the innate conventionality of the story arc mires the show in predictable pathos. After Brian Epstein takes over management, and George Martin production, Pete Best is fired (although one can’t discern anything wrong with his drumming onstage, other than playful showiness), and Sutcliffe gets cut off with the usual Lennon brute denial of vulnerability.

Post-ovation, the band gathers for a series of standard group numbers, virtually supplicating to “Please Please Me.” It’s probably a necessary commercial gesture, but it’s more of an anti-climax that contradicts the harder edge the material has needed to maintain all along. Still, one would have to say that downbeat ending notwithstanding, the polished production seems more than ready for a trip to please the tourists on Broadway.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre (runs through March 1)

Cast: Nick Blood, Andrew Knott, Leanne Best, Oliver Bennett, Daniel Healy, Daniel Westwick, Edward Clarke, Dominic Rouse, Mark Hammersley, Adam Sopp, James Wallace

Director: David Leveaux, from Iain Softley’s production for Glasgow Citizens Theatre

Writers: Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, adapted from the Universal Pictures film written by Softley, Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward

Designer: Andrews D. Edwards, from an original concept by Christopher Oram

Lighting Design: Howard Harrison and David Holmes

Sound Design: Richard Brooker

Projection Design: Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn for Knifedge

Musical Supervision and Original Incidental Music: Paul Stacey

Producer: Karl Sydow in association with Glasbow Citizens Theatre

Executive Producer (Los Angeles): Paul Elliott for Triumph Entertainment