We begin with a projection of outer space and an astronaut's mask, accompanied by the familiar strains of "Imagine," sensitively sung by Marcy Harriell. There's a message from Mission Control to the Space Shuttle Columbia. And then a huge blast bombs, police whistles, panicked shouts. It's now October 9, 1940. John Lennon is born.
Lennon is very much a multimedia musical, with every element working so well together, not a single one overshadows another. Rather, they compliment each other in a relationship that's almost symbiotic, and the projections and music are virtually characters unto themselves.
Most of the action happens on a large circle you might expect it to rotate, but it doesn't a piano, two teardrop-shaped benches, and a surrounding upper platform for the musicians. Set pieces are minimal -- John and Yoko's "Bed-In" is staged on top of the piano, with a sheet covering the performers. The back wall is one large projection screen divided into three, and a few times, projections also appear on the walls to the very left and right of the orchestra seats. Frequently, a much larger screen is lowered, enough to obscure most of the stage.
The story is presented with the assumption that most of the audience has a general grasp of the major events in John Lennon's life, taking Act 1 to breeze through Lennon's early life, including the formation of the Beatles and his meeting Yoko Ono at an art exhibit. Act 2 drags slightly as it dwells on a smaller time frame in his life (and includes slower-paced songs), but everything picks up again in the final twenty minutes.
In keeping with the idea expressed in "I Am The Walrus," that "I am he, as you are he, as you are me, and we are all together," every performer has a chance at playing John Lennon. It's not just Tag Team Theatre, either.
After a while a subtle pattern started to emerge with some of them it seemed that Terrence Mann played the more outlandish, outspoken side of Lennon; Will Chase and Chad Kimball the sweeter and introspective. Mann, by the way, is given the amazing and sad "I Don't Want to Lose You," which was never published and appears in Lennon with special permission from Yoko Ono.
Julie Danao presented Yoko Ono (Mandy Gonzalez plays Ono for only one scene) with great care and passion -- no small feat considering a role like this could easily turn unsympathetic -- and when Gonzelez wasn't deliciously blasting her way through one power ballad after another, she gave a funny but creepy portrayal of the Maharishi, beard and all.
Rounding out the tremendously enjoyable cast are Chuck Cooper, Julia Murney (who gives a wonderfully thoughtful performance as Lennon's first wife, Cynthia), Marcy Harriell and Michael Potts.
Every performer sounded fantastic a week into previews, with Kimball being a minor exception, as he sounded slightly shrieky in some of his first few songs.
Lennon is already very polished, with minor quibbles being the band frequently overpowering the singers, and some occasional mic troubles. The main problem is a pair of rather extraneous songs -- it wouldn't be a loss if they were cut before the show leaves San Francisco.
One is "Crippled Inside," a strange, slightly embarrassing duet between John and Yoko (Mann and Danao) in clown suits, which already repeats what has just been said in the preceding dialogue.
The other is Harriell's roof-blowing rendition of "Woman is the Nigger of the World," which sounds gorgeous but is given little context and doesn't fit with the flow of the scene.
There's the potential for a lack of connection between the generation of audience members who did live during Lennon's heyday and those who didn't, but with a show like this, that's not going to pose a problem. The audience at Saturday's matinee performance was made up of plenty of people from both groups, and the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
There is a wonderful, youthful exuberance about Lennon that comes from every one of its diverse performers they're all having fun, they care about their work, and it really shows. Lennon is bound to get better and better over the course of the run here and in Boston. By the time it reaches Broadway, hopefully everything will be in place. If you're in San Francisco or Boston, do not miss the opportunity for a wonderful theatrical experience not to mention bragging rights.
Lennon can be seen at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco now through May 14, and the Colonial Theatre in Boston from May 31 June 5. Previews begin at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City on June 7.