Lennon Music and Lyrics by John Lennon. Book by Don Scardino. With Special Thanks to Yoko Ono Lennon.
Directed/conceived by Don Scardino. Choreographed by Joseph Malone. Scenic/projection design by John Arnone. Costume design by Jane Greenwood. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Bobby Aitken. Music Coordinator John Miller. Music Director Jeffrey Klitz. Creative Consultants Bob Eaton, Brian Hendel. Orchestrator Harold Wheeler. Music supervisor/arranger Lon Hoyt. Starring Will Chase, Chuck Cooper, Julie Danao-Salkin, Mandy Gonzalez, Marcy Harriell, Chad Kimball, Terrence Mann, Julia Murney, Michael Potts, Rona Figueroa, Mark Richard Ford, Nicole Lewis, Darin Murphy.
In April, the producers of Broadway's newest jukebox scourge - sorry, "musical" - Lennon announced that the show would skip its second out-of-town tryout stop in Boston and instead proceed to New York immediately, so that the creative team could - quoting them, now - "make the changes that will be beneficial to our show." (Let's ignore for the moment that the purpose of tryouts has always been to do just that.)
Then, on July 27, the same producers announced that they were going to push back the show's scheduled August 4 Broadway opening 10 days to allow for yet more time to make changes. Translating from producerese to English: A week before opening, the show still hadn't been fixed.
Well, Lennon has finally opened at the Broadhurst. If this is fixed, I'd hate to have seen it when it was broken.
Lennon is the most criminally boring jukebox "musical" to open to date, utterly sanitizing and whitewashing its subject's life so as to remove from him any and all controversy and rebellious fire. (This is likely due, in no small part, to the close involvement of Lennon's fiercely protective widow, Yoko Ono.) 27 songs that Lennon wrote or famously performed have been shoehorned into a show-biz saga so bland and non-specific, but for a few specific names it could be about anyone.
"Mother" becomes about Lennon's mother. (Lennon never gets more complex than this.) "India, India" is set against his trip to, well, India. "I'm Losing You" and "I'm Moving On" serve as a counterpoint duet for John and Yoko when they separate and he moves to Los Angeles (a trip chronicled in "I'm Stepping Out") for a year. "Beautiful Boy" is sung about the birth of Lennon's son Sean, and so on.
What happens here is what has to happen with jukebox "musicals": As the songs weren't written for dramatic situations, they become either diversions or extraneous theatrical black holes from which useful information, liveliness, and even good, old-fashioned entertainment have no hope of escaping. That makes Lennon no more effective than constantly switching channels between a VH1 Lennon tribute and Beatles night on American Idol.
That Scardino is out of his element and out of his mind is obvious when the show starts, and the production seems more about John Arnone's non-committal industrial set and its three towering projection screens showing a nonstop stream of images. Already Lennon himself isn't a concern, but common sense - let alone respect for the audience - is discarded altogether when the cast's four women try (and fail) to recreate the excitement of the Beatles' now-legendary performance of "Twist and Shout" on The Ed Sullivan Show.
If that number - equally famous in television history and music history - can't fly, what can? The answer, of course, is nothing, though there are plenty of desperation attempts: a shamelessly manipulative first-act finale of "Give Peace a Chance" (with the cast throwing white daisies at the audience) as the well-known refrain is repeated ad infinitum, and a finale of "Imagine" that climaxes in a video clip of Lennon himself singing it with an adoring Ono by his side.
That brief moment is an uncomfortable reminder that the real man had charisma unmatched by anyone onstage here. And the show's concept ("Lennon is a part of all of us," or some such drivel) only makes you realize, as each of the nine performers attempts to adopt different aspects of Lennon's life and personality, none is capable of getting the whole man right.
Will Chase, the most frequent adult Lennon, looks most like him but doesn't sound much like him. Chad Kimball frequently essays the star's younger or more adventurous side with a voice that sounds like Austin Powers imitating Jerry Lewis. As for Terrence Mann, Chuck Cooper, and the charisma-free Michael Potts... well, they're good theatre singers, for whatever that's worth in a musical about a famous rock icon.
The women fare only slightly better, but generally have less to do: The primary exception is Julie Danao-Salkin, who has the role of Yoko all to herself. (Isn't Yoko a part of all of us, too? Or something?) She sings and speaks decently, in a close-enough approximation of Ono's clipped diction, but displays no personality. The talents of Off-Broadway belting queen Julia Murney, making her Broadway debut, are wasted more than those of her castmates, though that's not saying much. Mandy Gonzalez does a lot of anonymous belting.
Finally, there's Marcy Harriell, the only thing about Lennon that seems to belong in a Broadway theater. She's an unstoppable burst of focused creative energy, and wakes up the show (and the audience) with her every appearance, whether as a hyperactive Elton John leaping on the piano when playing a gig with Lennon or simply writhing around onstage singing a searing, soulful rendition of "Woman Is the Nigger of the World."
Harriell should play Lennon, Yoko, and everyone else; anything else is wasting our time. The busy lighting (Natasha Katz), painstakingly accurate period costumes (Jane Greenwood), and surprisingly subdued sound design (Bobby Aitken) can't change the fact that this show exists only to further sell a pre-sold product: Lennon's music. If you aren't already an aficionado about Lennon's life, you'll learn nothing; if you aren't already a devotee, you'll feel nothing.
Well, that's not entirely true. I did feel something, specifically the
desire to travel back to the halcyon days of late 1966, when I could have
swelled with respect for producer David Merrick, who closed the previewing
musical Breakfast at Tiffany's because it just wasn't good enough. Lennon
also isn't good enough. It isn't good. It doesn't even deserve to be
mentioned in the same sentence as the word "good." And yet it's open, for
the same reason that garbage shows like Mamma Mia!, Good Vibrations, and All
Shook Up opened: The producers don't really care. So why should they give
us any reason to care about Lennon?