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Review: In 'Backbeat,' it's the Beatles' early, non-fab years

The group is shown as a hard-driving cover band working to hit it big in the promising but ultimately disappointing musical at the Ahmanson.

February 01, 2013|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

To all those graying rockers turned middle-class professionals streaming into the Ahmanson Theatre for "Backbeat" — I believe the technical term for this class of people is "subscribers" — a word of warning: The ads might make the show seem like the British version of "Jersey Boys," a "Liverpool Blokes" hit parade capitalizing on the greatest rock 'n' roll catalog of all time, but this musical marches to the beat of an entirely different drummer.

That the drummer's name is Pete Best and not Ringo Starr should tip you off that it's going to take a long while before you can jump up and down in your seat to "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

"Backbeat," a smudgy musical theater offering struggling to realize its artistic aspirations in what is essentially a commercial form, sticks to the early years, the chrysalis stage before the Beatles broke from their skiffle roots to enter the big time.

PHOTOS: 'Backbeat' on stage

This is the period when the Fab Four was the Less Fab Five, a grungy, hard-driving cover band playing night after night in dingy, smoke-choked dives in Hamburg, Germany. (To all my readers who chide me for not mentioning when cigarettes are used as a main prop, bring your oxygen masks.)

Based on Iain Softley's 1994 movie, "Backbeat" is in many ways more innovative than the jukebox extravaganzas that have been crossing our stages in recent years with all the nimbleness of ocean liners. The musical follows the film's plot, the story of a passionate friendship between two artists whose fates diverge on the eve of a revolution in pop culture.

But this unusual tale of platonic love and loss involving a snarling, wild, dementedly ambitious John Lennon (Andrew Knott) and Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood), a talented, dreamy-eyed art student who temporarily trades his paintbrush for a bass guitar, is part of a kaleidoscopic view of the band's origins.

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are given their due. And there's plenty of room left over for jealousy, especially when Astrid Kirchherr (Leanne Best), the sprightly German photographer whom Stuart falls madly in love with, comes between John and his bosom buddy, whose brooding James Dean seductiveness puts both sexes under its spell.

Fluidly directed by David Leveaux, "Backbeat" floats between barroom gigs, in which the Beatles play their own edgy versions of "Johnny B. Goode" and "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," and the backstage drama of a group searching for its own distinctive sound and style.

The action, encapsulated in a nightclub bubble (designed by Andrew D. Edwards following an original concept by Christopher Oram), emerges almost surreally from the music. The background projections by Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn add a kinetic kick to the staging, which is further enhanced by Howard Harrison and David Holmes' moody lighting and a propulsive sound design by Richard Brooker that complements Paul Stacey's punk-edged musical supervision.

So with so much to appreciate, why does "Backbeat" so often seem out of rhythm?

One problem is the way the story has been adapted by Softley and Stephen Jeffreys from the movie. The early scenes in Hamburg take too long setting up the basic situation of the band, and there's not enough time for exploring the nuances of John and Stuart's complicated relationship. (To be fair, the film, written by Softley, Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward, does only a slightly better job of illuminating John's curiously intense attachment.)

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The other big issue is the characterizations. Knott's John, manic, immature, always spoiling for a fight, is insufferable. (I'm sure I wasn't the only one in attendance wishing that Yoko Ono would enter the scene to rehabilitate this stunted fellow.) Regardless of whether the portrait is true to life, the character is too one-dimensional to be dramatically interesting. His journey is enticing only because he's John Lennon.

Blood's Stuart looks good in dark sunglasses and knows how to project artistic sensitivity, but the inner torment of his character, a painter who has to forgo the opportunity of a lifetime to realize his true calling, is only superficially captured. His tragic ending (spoiler alert: This historical character dies young) keeps the writers from digging too deeply into his psyche. But then the production seems to be much more fascinated by Blood's 21st century gym-sculpted body, an anachronism that only the most punctilious among us will mind.

Blond, arty, Teutonic and fey, Best's Astrid is a series of adjectives in search of a noun. She's not as much of a cipher as Daniel Healy's Paul McCartney (Lennon's the musical genius in this account), but don't expect great insight into the woman whose photographs initially helped the band launch its image.

As the underage George Harrison, Daniel Westwick is endearing when he loses his virginity and when he gets the Beatles deported. Otherwise, true to character, he concedes the stage.

If there's any band member who deserves a little more time in the limelight, it's Best, not because of Oliver Bennett's portrayal so much as the incredible turn of events in which the character is fired just before the band's breakthrough. Has anyone written a play about Best's life? Now that's a Beatles story waiting for its latter-day Shakespeare.

In a concession to baby boomers, "Backbeat" offers a mini-Beatles concert at the end in which the audience can release their disappointment and rock out to "Love Me Do," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and "I Saw Her Standing There," among other classics. For some, this shot of grappa will compensate for the so-so meal.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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