BACKBEAT: THE BIRTH OF THE BEATLES by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys (Karl Sydow/Glasgow Citizens Theatre/Mirvish). At the Royal Alexandra (260 King West). To September 2. $36-$130. 416-872-1212. See listing. Rating: NNN
Hardcore Beatles fans will find lots to enjoy in this moody, slow-moving story about the forming of the Fab Four. Others, though, might not be so enthusiastic. I fall somewhere in between.
It's the early 1960s, and young Liverpudlian rockers John Lennon (Andrew Knott), Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy), George Harrison (Daniel Westwick), Pete Best (Oliver Bennett) and painter-turned-mediocre-bass-player Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) get a gig in Hamburg playing eight hours a night in a seedy club.
When Sutcliffe falls for German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Isabella Calthorpe), it threatens to disrupt the group, who are on the verge of finding their voice and breaking through. It also upsets the bromance between him and Lennon.
The script, based on co-writer Iain Softley's film, doesn't offer much insight into anyone or anything, including the crucial Lennon/Sutcliffe relationship. Some moments - like the changing of the band's name - aren't given proper significance; at the same time, though, there's a hushed reverence about the proceedings, as if the writers are worrying too much about hitting plot points and following facts instead of making entertainment.
Loud, brash renditions of classics like Johnny B Goode and Good Golly Miss Molly - all performed by the actors - seem inserted to appease audience members who just want to rock out.
But once the show finds its emotional heart, it's absorbing enough. Director David Leveaux uses the depth and height of the Royal Alex well, and Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn's projections - often inspired by Kirchherr's photos - add lots of texture.
The costumes in the German underground scene strike some odd notes, seeming either retro or way ahead of their time. But the music, like the rare quiet a cappella number sung by Healy or the greatest hits package blasted by the band as an encore, is pretty brilliant.
And that's what audiences want, after all.