A Visit to a Dark Smokey Rock and Roll Club

backbeatuserpic=ahmansonLast night we went to a rock club. Specifically, we went to rock club located in a large building, in a central part of town, in a dark (and smoky) room, surrounded by a lot of people (between 1600 and 2000,  to be precise), all of whom had paid a lot of money to get in. If that phrase didn’t clue you in, then perhaps I should clarify: last night, we went to the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles to see “Backbeat“, a musical re-telling of the story of the formation of the Beatles. “Backbeat” primarily takes place at the rock club in Hamburg Germany, and throughout the show the characters are chain smoking (clove cigarettes), plus the theatre is filled with theatrical smoke and fog. And music. Very very loud rock music.

Backbeat“, which is based on the 1994 movie of the same name, purports to tell the story of the early days of the Beatles — specifically, the days when the band was first forming up as the Beatles, and when it consisted of 5 Liverpool blocks: the familiar John, Paul, and George, plus Pete Best on drums and Stuart Sutcliffe on bass. Yes, I said “5” — the Beatles was originally a quintet. Note that I also said “purportedly”, as “Backbeat” takes liberties with the Beatles chronology for the sake of story telling.

You may have noticed that I haven’t called Backbeat a musical. That’s because it isn’t, either in the traditional book musical sense or even a jukebox musical sense. The music in Backbeat does not serve to propel or tell the story; very occasionally, it may echo something that was happening at the time. Backbeat is also not the traditional jukebox musical, with no real story to tell and covering the music of the selected artist over their career. You want a jukebox musical, go see Rain. If anything, Backbeat (except for the end, where it is a concert) is a play with lots of music; a play that tells the backstory of the Beatles with their performances front and center.

The focus of Backbeat, however, is not the Beatles. It is Stuart Sutcliffe. John Lennon met Sutcliffe in the mid-1950s at art school, and convinced him to join the band he had with Paul McCartney and George Harrison (then called The Quarrymen) playing bass (which Stucliffe did not know how to play). Later they added Pete Best, and went off to Hamburg to play a gig in a dive that consisted of 6-8 hour sets. This gig is where they honed their musical style and original bad-boy image (yes, back in these days the Beatles didn’t have the mop-top look, but were a hard rock and roll band in boots and leather jackets). This gig is also where Sutcliffe met Astrid Kirchherr, a German photographer, and fell in love. Backbeat also tells the story of this love and Kirchherr’s influence on Sutcliffe and the band, leading to Sutcliffe eventually quitting the Beatles, proposing to Kirchherr, and dying of a brain hemmorage. Lastly, Backbeat tells the story of the formation of the final Beatles configuration: how Brian Epstein became involved as the first manager of the Beatles, and how Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey). The story mostly sticks to the truth, although at times it plays loose with the chronology, and even portrays some characters different than in real life.

It is in the presentation of this story that Backbeat suffers from its main problem: language. Backbeat has a problem very similar to Billy Elliott: the northern England accents that the principal characters have make it very difficult for an American audience to follow the show. This is something this production is going to need to adjust if it is going to succeed in the colonies, for it has really only played in London and Toronto. There’s also a fair bit of German, which American audiences do not understand. Combine these accents and foreign languages with very fast and angry talking, and the story become quite difficult to follow. In fact, I found myself wanting to see a number of traditional book musical songs — in the style of the Beatles — to exhibit inner thoughts and focus the story better. Alas, I never got them, and I found myself working hard to figure out everything that was happening. I think, if this eventually moves to Broadway, some book songs would be great (perhaps they could get Sir Paul to write them).

There are two other warnings that anyone attending this show needs to know. First, it is loud. I mean, it is Loud. No, I really mean IT IS LOUD. In fact, I would venture to say that the real Beatles never played this loud. We walked out of this production with our ears ringing, and needing quiet for an hour or two to let them recover. It is also very smoky. The lead characters — hell, all characters — are constantly smoking cigarettes (thankfully, clove). That, combined with theatrical smoke and fog, turned the Ahmanson into a venue with limited visibility, where people were running outside during intermission just to get fresh air. I think both of these aspects need to be adjusted if this show is to be a success.

The other observation I’d like to make before going into the cast is a chromatic one. The show is very black and white. By this, I’m not just referring to the story (which presents a particular picture), but the staging and presentation. In general, the lighting, the set, the costumes are all very monochromatic — black, white, grey. There is a little color here and there, but black and white predominate. This makes the feeling be one of “old”, harkening back to the black and white pictures on the early Beatles album covers.

Were the performances black and white? Initially, I didn’t think so. Initially, I thought the production was well played, with the actors bringing a remarkable intensity to their roles. However, the ending of the show convinced me that although they brought the intensity, they didn’t bring the fun. This is because, after the curtain call, the show turned into a rock concert with the leads (essentially, at this point, an early Beatles tribute band) inviting the audience to rock out with them and the cast in a series of 5-6 Beatles songs. It was at this point you saw the cast finally letting down their hair and having fun with the roles — and here is where the show was a pure blast of fun. Why couldn’t this fun be one the stage during the earlier and darker portions? Perhaps this is the fault of the director, David Leveaux, for focusing the main part of the musical on the anger and the history, and not the fun. Then again, perhaps that was the point of Hamburg — the Beatles needed to get past the anger to find the fun; it is the fun that made the Beatles succeed, not the anger.

The musical performances, however, were top notch. The original Beatles consisted of Andrew Knott (John Lennon, guitar); Daniel Healy (Paul McCartney, guitar, bass); Nick Blood (Stuart Sutcliffe, bass), Daniel Westwick (George Harrison, guitar), and Oliver Bennett (Pete Best, drums). All of these young men gave strong musical performances. Acting-wise, the focus was primarily on Knott (Lennon), Healy (McCartney) and Blood (Sutcliffe). The other two had much smaller roles and you learned a lot less about their characters. These young men also didn’t look that much like the originals (although the originals didn’t always look like the originals either); luckily, they sounded like them. As for the acting of the primary band members, it was reasonably good. A major problem (which I noted before) was understanding the heavy accents; I think this is something that requires adjustment for the American audience.

There was one additional principal cast member: Leanne Best as Astrid Kirchherr. It is hard to assess this role. Best came off to be as cold and stiff, but that could just be the German nature of the original character. Certainly you got to see her loosen up quite a bit more during the closing jam session. But in general I enjoyed her performance, although I found her voice a bit husky.

The remainder of the cast created various small roles (this included Ringo Starr) and formed the various shifting members of the ensemble. As such, it was often difficult to single them out for particular notice (although it was quite a bit of fun to watch the female members of the ensemble dancing and playing in character in the background). The remainder of the cast consisted of: Edward Clarke (Bruno Koschmider, Ensemble), Josie Dunn (Ensemble), Sam Ford (Ensemble), Mark Hammersley (Brian Epstein, MC, Ensemble), Perry Ojeda (Swing), Charlotte Palmer (Rosa, Ensemble), Phil Pritchard (Arthur Ballard, Inspector, Ensemble), Dominic Rouse (Klaus Voormann, Ensemble), Louise Shuttleworth (Mrs. Moores, Lecturer 2, Ensemble), Adam Sopp (Tony Sheridan, Ringo Starr, Lecturer 1, Doctor, Ensemble), Charles Swift (Bert Kaempfert, Ensemble), James Wallace (George Martin, Eduard Paolozzi, Mr. Moores, Ensemble), and Miranda Wilford (Dance Captain, Swing). I will note that many of these performers also were playing instruments during the show; there was no separate orchestra pit.
[All actors appear with the permission of Actors Equity. Note that I didn’t say they were Equity members, which likely means this is a British cast with special dispensation to perform in America]

Turning to the creative side: The show was written by Iain Softly and Stephen Jeffreys. It was originally directed by Softly, but this production was directed by the aforementioned David Leveaux. Jason Lawson was associate director. Music supervision was by Paul Stacey. There are no credits for choreography or music; but then again, remember this isn’t a musical.

On the technical side, the large back and white Hamburg nightclub set, which doubles as all the other locales, was designed by Andrew D. Edwards. The sound design, which was VERY LOUD, was designed by Richard Brooker, assisted by Poti Martin.  The lighting, by David Holmes, was very stark but was effective for what it was. The projections were designed by Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn for Knifedge. Ray Gin was the production stage manager, with Lora K. Powell and Michelle Blair serving as stage managers.

Backbeat” continues at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 1. Tickets are available through the online Ahmanson box office. Given how empty our show was, you may very likely still find Hottix available.

Dining Notes: We found a new place to eat before the show, and it was… yum. The Parks Finest BBQ, at 1267 W Temple near Edgeware, was a wonderful fusion of Filipino and BBQ. Their meat was divine, with a dry rub that didn’t need sauce, moist, meaty and tender. The also have great vegetables: we had the Elote, which is a combination of smoked corn off the cob, with mayo, parmesian cheese, and cayenne. Their veggie medley (which we had without the peppers), was also excellent. One hint: parking is hard to find; your best best is to make a left from Temple onto Edgeware, and find parking on Edgeware.

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:   Next weekend brings “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on Saturday, and Run for your Wife” at Canyon Theatre Guild on Sunday. The last weekend of February is The Snake Can” at the Odyssey Theatre (based on an ad that caught Karen’s eye in the latest Footlights). Karen (but not me) will be seeing When You’re In Love The Whole World is Jewish” at the Greenway Court Theatre on Feburary 21. March starts with “I’ll Be Back Before Midnight” at the Colony. After a break for Fogcon (although I may do something here), theatre picks up with “Catch Me If You Can” at Broadway LA/Pantages on March 16 and “Boeing Boeing” at REP East on March 23. March may also bring “End of the Rainbow” at the Ahmanson, most likely on March 30. April will bring the Southern California Renaissance Faire , “Grease” at Cabrillo Music Theatre, and a winetasting at Temple Ahavat Shalom. May is also busy, with two concerts — Elton John in Las Vegas on May 4, and (tentative) Michael Feinstein at VPAC on May 11. May may also bring “Falling for Make Believe” at The Colony Theatre, “To Kill a Mockingbird” at REP East. Lastly, continuing the look ahead, June will bring (tenative) “The Scottsboro Boys” at the Ahmanson Theatre, “Priscilla – Queen of the Desert” at the Pantages, (tentative) Sweet Charity at DOMA, and the Western Corps Connection at the end of the month. I’m also keeping my eyes open as the various theatres start making their 2013 season announcements. Lastly, what few dates we do have open may be filled by productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411, or discussed in the various LA Stage Blogs I read (I particularly recommend Musicals in LA and LA Stage Times).