Why was I cringing and rolling my eyes? What could possibly be objectionable about a show that is really just a concert of Beatles songs — some of the most pleasing melodies composed in the twentieth century — performed as faithfully as possible by a group of professional musicians? They go chronologically, from the first gigs by John, Paul, George and Ringo (in what seems like a mashup of their shows in Liverpool and Hamburg) and their U.S. television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show through the Shea Stadium concert and the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to that last “Let It Be” jam on the roof of their recording studio. Each new location comes with corresponding changes of costumes and wigs and chintzy but memory-inducing sets.
In-between the sets, just long enough for the performers to don their next hair and jacket, big screens dressed up to look like TV sets project snippets of familiar video from the Sixties, only some of it connected directly to the Beatles. These are part of the least imaginative design –not just the sets, but the lighting and projections and stage smoke — that I’ve seen on Broadway in years.
Click on any photograph to see it enlarged
The problem is that the Beatles’ appeal resided in their energy, wit, and originality. “Let It Be” can be excused for lacking originality; the whole point of a tribute band is to be unoriginal, isn’t it? Nothing forbids them from exercising some wit, however, although it would seem that way by the banter offered up. The closest to wit that “Let It Be” achieves is in the performers’ feeble attempts at recreating the characteristically jokey gestures of the Fab Four.
By far the worst offense is that the enterprise seems lazy, the performers tired – they look and seem to act animatronic, if not outright cryogenic. There are hints as to the cause of this fatigue in their bios: “Reuven Gershon (Musician) has regularly played John Lennon on stage and screen.” Some have been performing as the Beatles longer than the Beatles did*. They seem programmed to indicate through gesture and facial expression that they are enjoying themselves, but a real sense of enjoyment seems missing.
An exception occurs about 90 minutes into the show, when they sit on chairs and just play one beautiful ballad after another for about a half hour. There is real pleasure throughout in listening to the guitar-playing, which clearly exhibits technical skill.
But in general “Let It Be” offers an instructive contrast to Broadway shows that belong roughly in the same category, “Motown: The Musical” about the many acts discovered by Motown Records, “Jersey Boys,” about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and “Million Dollar Quartet,” about the recording session held by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Even if these other shows eliminated any effort at a plot or dialogue, as “Let It Be” has done, or largely blanked out distinctions in personality among the characters, as “Let It Be” manages to accomplish, the fans of this music should still feel the words flowing out like endless rain… the sounds of laughter, shades of earth ringing through their opened ears, inciting and inviting them.
Much of the above review is copied nearly verbatim from my review three years ago of “Rain,” another Beatles tribute show on Broadway, just as “Let It Be” seems copied from “Rain” — right down to the pointless videos during the costume changes. Indeed, at least two of the “Let It Be” performers (Graham Alexander and Chris McBurney) admit to making their Broadway debuts in “Rain.” Hilariously, the creators of “Rain” are suing “Let It Be” for half its revenue, claiming copyright infringement. I’d be happy to testify — but would prefer to do so at a trial in which both shows are defendants.
Let It Be: A Celebration of the Music of The Beatles
St. James Theater
Musical supervisor and U.S. director: John Maher
Set design by tim McQuillen-Wright, US lighting design by Jason Lyons, sound design by Gareth Owen, video design by Duncan McLean, costume supervisor: Jack Galloway
Cast: Graham Alexander (as Paul), John Brosnan (as George), Ryan Coath, James Fox, Reuven Gershon (as John), Chris McBurney, Luke Roberts (as Ringo), Ryan Alex Farmery, John Korba, Daniel A. Weiss
*The program only identifies each cast member’s role as “musician,” and there is only one character besides the four Beatles, playing a back-up musician, yet 10 people are listed in the cast. Are some understudies, do they alternate roles, are there relief Beatles in the middle of the show? Your guess is as good as mine.
Running time: two and a half hours, including a 20-minute intermission.
Ticket prices: $30 to $135
Let It Be is scheduled to play through December 29, 2013