- The Washington Times - Monday, August 15, 2005

NEW YORK - The ongoing battle for the soul of Broadway is poignantly illuminated in the woefully misguided new musical “Lennon,” based on the life and music of John Lennon, which officially opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theater.

A dedicated community of theater people is clinging by their fingertips in a last-ditch effort to prevent traditional notions of Broadway as an arena for serious drama or popular American song from disappearing into the gaping commercial maw of “Broadway,” the brand.

That they are losing should come as no surprise.

Like their brethren in the worlds of publishing, music, film, dance and fine art, Broadway producers today are competing for the rapidly degrading American attention span against television, Hollywood blockbusters, video games and the Internet.

More precisely, given the immense expense of staging a Broadway musical and the composition of most contemporary Broadway audiences (in a word, tourists), what Broadway musical producers are really competing against are the homogenous, easily digested, prepackaged spectacles of Las Vegas and Disneyland.

In the new “Lennon,” the slain popular music icon’s story is told in the first person, using Mr. Lennon’s own words, by an ensemble cast of varying genders, ages and ethnicities, each of whom portrays some aspect of his life. All of them sing and dance extremely well.

The cast is abetted by three trapezoidal screens that function as a giant video scrapbook, countless iconic costume changes that mark off the different eras, and a few well-chosen bits of scenery (the colorful mock-Hindu scrim that marks the Beatles’ pilgrimage to see the maharishi, for example, and a replica of Mr. Lennon’s famous white piano).

Arranged in a semi-circle across the back of the stage, the band plays the familiar songs with a nice light touch, though the songs have been predictably sanded down and in some cases radically rearranged.

The rearrangements actually shed new light on the songs in their use of two and three-part harmony, something Mr. Lennon used sparingly in his post-Beatles work. The low points are the diva moments, when songs are stretched apart like taffy, and recast as generic “showstoppers.” This allows the show’s female performers to execute crowd-pleasing “American Idol-ish,” Mariah Carey-esque vocal acrobatics, but it also completely obliterates Lennon’s fragile little melodies.

Of the eight actors on stage at all times, Will Chase emerges early on as the most integrated Lennon, the one the audience follows. Mr. Chase manages to convey a great deal of Mr. Lennon’s contradictions and his restless searching quality — though, alas, not his wit. The only other performer to make a direct emotional connection with the audience is Chuck Cooper as the cop who rushed the singer to the hospital after he was shot and heard his last words.

Everything that happens around Mr. Chase is told in deliberately stagy and lightweight vignettes, as if they were merely “illustrations” for the narrative. The result is that every character (other than Yoko and, possibly, John’s sainted mother, Julia) is portrayed for laughs in a series of one-note caricatures. This seems harmlessly amusing at first, until one begins to tally up the indiscriminate targets: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Brian Epstein, the Queen of England, the maharishi, Jerry Rubin, J. Edgar Hoover, Geraldo Rivera and Elton John, to name a few. The real John Lennon neither collaborated with nor did battle against any paper tigers. He was more than able to hold his own against some heavyweight historical figures.

One moment in particular hints at the richer, more satisfying show “Lennon” could have been. After a particularly humiliating tryst between Mr. Lennon and an unnamed woman at a party, Yoko Ono banishes her husband, who slinks off to California and his notorious “lost weekend.” Alone on stage, the Ono character says something like, “Living with John was a very difficult situation. But I thought I could endure that for the sake of our love.”

Nobody familiar with Lennon’s life will be surprised to hear that he and Ono shared a complex and turbulent relationship. But in the context of the play, Ono’s statement comes out of nowhere. All we’ve seen onstage up to that point are a series of brief sketches, all of which depicted John and Yoko’s marriage as an impregnable fairytale cocoon of peace and love.

A peek inside that cocoon is precisely what is missing from “Lennon.” There is no denying the good intentions behind “Lennon,” including those of Yoko Ono herself, who donated a couple of unreleased Lennon songs. But there’s an obvious and enormous gap separating the life of someone as outspoken, messy, complicated and flawed as Mr. Lennon from the requisite superficiality of the 21st century Broadway musical.

The compromises that mar this otherwise technically accomplished production say less about any of the people involved than they do about the conditions under which they have to work to bridge that gap.

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