I can't quite explain what I saw on Tuesday night, at the opening of Lennon, making its world premiere at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco. Part jukebox musical, part rock opera, part something this production defies categorization, making for a particularly intriguing, yet frustrating evening.
Minutes prior to the show's beginning, three screens flash phrases such as "Bed Peace", "Grow Your Hair", and "Love is All You Need". The show appears to begin when the actors enter the stage, with simple (and possibly improvised) interactions, When the music starts however, the shock of overmiked and oversynthesized music provides a feeling more akin to a rock concert than a Broadway musical.
Opening with "Imagine", the actors quickly begin to tell the story of John Lennon in a format so bold and out of this world that it works. Almost. The production assumes that you firstly know who John Lennon is, and that you also know the Cliffs Notes version of his life story. If you only know that he was a member of the Beatles, you'll be significantly bewildered his relationship with the Beatles is over just as soon as it begins, to those who can't keep up. After all, this story is not about the Beatles, and therefore not a nostalgia-fest, as it may be construed. Adults hoping to go to the theater and relive their teenage years: be warned.
Made up of a diverse cast, everyone plays John, most prominently Chad Kimball and Will Chase, both of whom play the role most as "contemplative John", whereas Terrence Mann becomes "wild John". Represented by glasses and an occasional (yet inconsistent accent), the cast becomes John, in addition to portraying the people that surround him. Michael Potts stands out when singing "God" at the end of Act1.
Julia Danao takes on the role of Yoko Ono with grace and beauty, in a role that could easily have become a caricature, and a blonde Julia Murney provides a portrayal of Cynthia Lennon, as well as Lennon's aunt. Mandy Gonzalez provides hysterical moments as the Maharishi in "India" dispensing wisdom to the Fab Four while the ever-versatile Terrence Mann provides a great Winston Churchill.
While the actors shine in such moments, particularly Marcy Harriel, in "Woman Is the Nigger of the World", and Chuck Cooper in "Just Like (Starting Over), they truly come together as an ensemble. In the Act 2 opener "Power to the People", you feel the intensity of the protests in the 1960s, and the cast outdoes itself in "Give Peace a Chance". The chemistry between these performers is electric, and they appear to be having a marvelous time on stage.
However, not even this amazing cast can salvage what is an extremely confusing book. While director Scardino's idea, in having an ensemble portray Lennon, is marvelous in theory, it ultimately left me unfulfilled and lost. After all, what exactly happened? Lennon ends up feeling like a fun history lesson, chronicling one man's life story, taking place in the 1960's. The main events of his life are presented efficiently enough, but beyond that, there are too many different characters to keep track of exactly what is happening. The acting may be good, but the pacing does not allow you time to process the events. By the time you realize the Beatles were in their heyday, John Lennon already is having a Bed-In for Peace with Yoko Ono.