Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 24, 2013
Let It Be: A Celebration of the Music of The Beatles Music supervisor & US director John Maher. Set designer Tim McQuillen-Wright. U.S. lighting designer Jason Lyons. Sound designer Gareth Owen. Video designer Duncan McLean. Original video designers Darren McCaulley & Mathieu St. Arnaud. Costume supervisor Jack Galloway. Cast: Graham Alexander, John Brosnan, Ryan Coath, James Fox, Reuven Gershon, Chris McBurney, Luke Roberts, Ryan Alex Farmery, John Korba, Daniel A. Weiss.
At some point, however, don't we need to develop new language to present, describe, dissect, and explain The Beatles and its impact on society, lest it be relegated to the compost heap of history that has nothing at all to do with life after 1970? If the "new" show Let it Be: A Celebration of the Music of The Beatles, which just opened at the St. James, is any indication, the answer is an emphatic "no."
This is not to say there's anything wrong with it, per se. If all you care about is a two-and-a-half hour concert of the hits — every hit, pretty much — then it will more than suffice. It captures every major milestone in the group's frantic, decade-long career, from the earliest days at The Cavern in Liverpool through the historic Ed Sullivan Show appearance and the concert at Shea Stadium to Sergeant Pepper and the Magical Mystery Tour, with the scenic design (Tim McQuillen-Wright), lights (Jason Lyons), and costumes (supervised by Jack Galloway) embodying the gang's latent floppy-haired, Technicolor (and later psychedelic) appeal.
The performers, doing genial and generally accurate, if uninspired, impressions of John (Reuven Gershon), Paul (James Fox), George (John Brosnan), and Ringo (Luke Roberts), are unquestionably capable of plowing attractively and energetically through the epochal numbers. If there's nothing particularly distinctive about renditions of mega-blockbusters like "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Can't Buy Me Love," "When I'm 64," and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" beyond their ardent professionalism, occasional instances of surprise delight do shine through, as during Roberts's solo on "I Wanna Be Your Man." John Maher, musical supervisor and U.S. director, has done his job well.
Even so, the impact, beyond whatever sheer visceral thrill you may derive just from witnessing these songs sung live and in person, is minimal. Tangible reasons for this are not hard to find.
Though Beatlemania technically started all this on the Great White Way back in 1977 (and its shadow falls yet here), you need look back no further than 2010 for an even bigger influence: Rain — A Tribute to The Beatles on Broadway. That show and this one share a number of commonalities, from the overall documentary structure to the look of the set to the use of an Ed Sullivan impersonator to references to the onstage band's name being the same as that of the show to period commercials and films or projections fixing the time between scene changes.
A lawsuit currently pending between the two properties means that these similarities are not going unrecognized, but if you saw Rain I cannot for the life of me think of a single reason for you to bother seeing Let it Be, too. The previous outing, in fact, struck me as marginally more adventurous, delving into the gang's later and more experimental work with a verve (and a show-stopping version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") that's utterly missing here, and suggested existence beyond the boundaries of vinyl.
That ushers in another difficulty: the lack of context. The Beatles were both reflections and drivers of the time in which they skyrocketed to the top, but by so isolating everything that's depicted you're deprived of any and all sense of why their music was important. Presumably this was the point of the projections (designed by Duncan McLean from original designs by Darren McCaulley and Mathieu St. Arnaud who, uh, created the videos for Rain), but as they play for laughs when they play for anything, you're still only getting part of the story — and not even necessarily the more interesting part.
Any avoidance of risk sets up the possibility of each moment sounding like little more than musical hagiography, and ultimately that's exactly what happens. Slavish recreation becomes its own reward, and the audience's participation in participating in and perpetuating that fantasy becomes unavoidable. Sing-alongs on "When I'm 64" and "Hey Jude" in the finale (something else Rain did in almost exactly the same way) are all well and good, and the crowd around me obviously loved them, but they go a lot further toward embodying the one-dimensional quantity the music has become rather than what it actually was when it mattered most.
That's the most destructive and disappointing effect of shows like this: They commodify something daring to the point where it's no longer recognized as the unique and influential creation that made it worthy of the recognition in the first place. There's no tangible difference between this and countless other outings of its type: There are no major missteps, true, but there's also no adventure, no fresh insights, no sense that this belongs in 2013 rather than in 1963. In the end, Let It Be isn't just the evening's title — it's also its credo.