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Lennon: Give Yoko A Chance


Don't even think of calling Lennon a jukebox musical and lumping it in a pile with various ill-conceived attempts to squeeze a score-load of popular hits never intended to be sung on stage into some inane story and stick it on Broadway in hopes that everyone will be so enthralled with the songs that they'll forget the idiocy of the book. No, this is an entirely different, and far more satisfying, creation.

Not exactly a musical, definitely not a revue and certainly not a concert, Lennon combines the playful anarchy of the avant-guarde with the structured story-telling of musical theatre in an immensely entertaining and informative show that positively bursts with both silliness and sincere emotions while examining an artist who tried to use his celebrity to help save the world.

"The world went mad and used us as an excuse" is how John Lennon described the tumultuous decade of the 60's, where he, Paul, George and Ringo suddenly became the figureheads for a generation of sexual liberation, expanded drug culture and activism against authority to combat an unpopular war. When his flippant remark about how The Beatles had become more popular than Jesus caused a national scandal, it hinted at the number of people he had the power to influence. As a solo artist, Lennon devoted his work to protest injustice and send a message promoting world peace.

Although Don Scardino is credited as director and bookwriter, it has been common knowledge among the theatre community that John Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, has maintained creative control over the production. In an interview with's Robert Diamond, cast member Terrence Mann stated, "She's been the final arbiter of everything that goes up on stage." And it's the awareness that you're watching his story from the perspective of his romantic soul mate and artistic partner that makes Lennon such a unique and often fascinating experience.

Although she most likely would not have received world-wide celebrity had she not been married to the former Beatle, Ono is nevertheless recognized by her peers as an important figure in the history of conceptual, multimedia and performance art. What we see on stage at the Broadhurst Theatre is her creative interpretation (through Don Scardino's excellent craftsmanship) of her deceased husband's life. Scale it down and Lennon would seem perfectly at home in a downtown performance art space. And if the story presented may lean a bit toward idealizing its subject, leaving one to wonder what may have been embellished or eliminated, it should always be considered that we're watching an artist's vision of his life, not an impartial documentary.

Songs he wrote with Paul McCartney and others are not included in Lennon which only uses his solo compositions. Fortunately, he was a man who commented on his very public personal life through his work, often naming names. This provides the show with a natural score and gives Scardino the opportunity to write scenes that organically evolve into appropriate songs. But instead of having characters sing in traditional musical theatre fashion, as a part of real life, songs are mostly used as commentary on the action. The story is told through a series of events and situations which inspired him to write such memorable music and lyrics as "Mind Games", "The Ballad of John and Yoko", "Give Peace a Chance" and "Imagine". But no songs are included simply for the sake of hearing a popular hit. Every musical moment in Lennon is there to serve the text.

And as he was never shy about speaking to the press, Scardino was able to have the character of John Lennon speak exclusively in the real man's words. (One would assume Ms. Ono supplied quotes for more personal moments.)

Scardino's script and direction often replicates the freewheeling lunacy that film director Richard Lester contributed to The Beatles' first feature films, A Hard Day's Night and Help. The supremely talented ensemble of five men and four women of various ages and ethnic backgrounds play a myriad of roles, ignoring any gender, age or racial restrictions. (The four women play The Beatles in their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.) Each actor appears as John Lennon at one time or another, though some do so for only a brief moment. At times there are several John Lennons on stage. There are also appearances from Elton John, Strom Thurmond, J. Edgar Hoover and Queen Elizabeth II.

The fast-moving scenes are linked together with narration from John Lennon as played by Will Chase. The most convincing of the Lennons, with his working-class slouch, dark sense of humor and raw, passionate singing voice, Chase is the emotional anchor of the show. While the other Lennons, mostly Chad Kimball and Terrence Mann, play out scenes involving the formation and breakup of The Beatles, his relationship with two wives and his dedication to bringing peace to the world through non-violent resistance, Chase's performance keeps us aware of him as a regular bloke and amateur street philosopher just trying to do a little good.

Chad Kimball, though he can use a little more time working on his accent, is at his best bringing out Lennon's boyishness, while Terrence Mann's stronger moments come during celebrity impersonations. During one sequence he's especially hilarious following an intense David Frost with a jolly Mike Douglas. Both put in strong singing performances as do cast-mates Mandy Gonzalez, Michael Potts and Julia Danao-Salkin, who plays a spirited and sympathetic Yoko.

Chuck Cooper, as is his habit, displays a warm, rich and powerful bass, and also has some goofy fun as Ed Sullivan. Act II is stopped cold with Marcy Harriell's stunningly sung and acted, "Woman Is the Nigger of the World."

And then there's Julia Murney, who up until now was perhaps the most well-known and talented musical theatre performer in New York to have never appeared in a Broadway show. (One-night benefit concerts don't count.) Seriously underutilized in Lennon, she has one lovely solo, "Beautiful Boy", written after the birth of John and Yoko's son, Sean, and a couple of humorous moments as Lennon's first wife, Cynthia. But just try and take your eyes off her during the ensemble song and dance numbers. When given a chance to let loose and rock out, Murney is a shimmering combination of lowdown and elegance. Her willowy limb movements and funky hip-shaking, combined with facial expressions that exude excitement, joy and humor, make her a magnet for attention and appreciation.

The cast of singing actors is given simple, but exuberant rock moves by choreographer Joseph Malone. John Arnone's set is primarily a bare stage with a replica of Central Park's "Imagine" mosaic, along with a series of period projections. The ten piece band, playing Harold Wheeler's hard rock orchestrations, is seated upstage.

Lennon, of course, does not have a happy ending, but it is a hopeful one, presented with taste and dignity. The closing moments may have you smiling through your tears. And perhaps imagining a better world.

Photos by Joan Marcus


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