Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“Backbeat” – The story of a little known Beatle makes for tuneful melodrama
I know people who can never get enough of The Beatles. Some have written books about them. Others have been known to scour those little stores filled with Hollywood memorabilia looking for “Help” posters, old LPs, Beatle wigs or tennis shoes – the ephemera of fandom and obsession. This kind of passion fuels all sorts of homages onstage, from “Beatlemania” to the host of minor tribute bands which travel the world. Newest is the musical “Backbeat,” now at the Ahmanson Theatre.
In an angle which is comparatively unique, this show looks at “the fifth Beatle” not by detailing the life of Pete Best (indeed, he is the object of the least focus, at least until very near the show’s end), but that of Stuart Sutcliffe. Don’t know him? He was the painter turned nominal bassist who traveled to Hamburg with the band in the years before fame and fortune became their definition. A close friend of John Lennon, he would last with the band a year, but a year in which they found much of their sound despite, more than because of him.
The struggle of Sutcliffe, between the isolation of art and the camaraderie of music, between Lennon and the German photographer Astrid Kirchherr, forms the basis for the show, as does the internecine rivalries which eventually resolved themselves into the songwriting dynamo that was Lennon/McCartney. It is less a documentary than a tale of the heart – of several hearts, actually. Even the producers admit to playing with history, from the timeline to the fact that Paul would have played his instrument left-handed. Thus, do not expect one of those tribute album cover jobs.
The plot makes for great melodrama. Sutcliffe is cajoled into joining in when the band leaves Liverpool for Germany. There, this painter meets his photographer, and gradually the “cool” he brings to the musical group becomes less important than the art he hopes to reengage with. For John Lennon, who talked him into coming along, Sutcliffe’s move back toward his own art comes as a disappointment, perhaps even a betrayal. Yet, in the end, it is Sutcliffe’s absence which allows the dynamic of The Beatles to be realized.
Sutcliffe’s early death, hastened perhaps by his time as a rocker, only underscores the sense of the man as a footnote, both in his own world and in the band’s. At least, in this rendition.
Nick Blood makes Sutcliffe handsome, the very embodiment of “cool,” and yet impassioned in his own way. Andrew Knott sounds remarkably like Lennon, and gives some sense of his underlying passions even as he leaves some interesting question marks. Daniel Healy makes Paul McCartney a bit underwhelming in a tale so filled with so many heightened emotions. Daniel Westwick makes George Harrison more young and cute than anything else, while Oliver Bennett seems mostly consigned to be a decent drummer as Pete Best – something which makes his ouster in favor of a nearly cartoonish Ringo (Adam Sopp) rather difficult to believe.
Leanne Best gives Astrid an earnest intensity, though most of what she is there to do is be the thing Sutcliffe clings to. Mark Hammersley makes an interesting Brian Epstein, the northern English record store owner whose “discovery” of The Beatles moved them into the big time. The ensemble dances with great definition, many playing such a number of parts they seem positively chameleon-like.
The music is all early Beatles: their covers, their early recordings. It has a genuine sound, cranked about as loud as those old school amps would have gone. The only thing missing, frankly, is their recording of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in German, as they deliver virtually a concert of hits at the show’s end.
Kudos do need to go to Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn from Knifedge, for the remarkable projections – particularly of the actual Astrid’s actual photographic portraits of this, the first edition of what would become rock’s single most famous group.
Which all goes to say that this is a great deal of sound, fury, size and production elaboration for what is actually a very small, melodramatic and intimate story. Beatle fans will swoon. Others will be interested. It’s fun, but hardly great art, and as such seems to spend way too much time taking itself way too seriously. Still, hearing Beatle songs live may be worth the price, as is hearing all those young men who have captured Liverpudlian accents to the point of the famed semi-unintelligibility.
What: “Backbeat” When: Through March 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. an 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with added 2 p.m. performances on Thursday, February 14 and 21. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, at 135 N. Grand Ave., at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $110 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org