Seen on Broadway: "The Ballad of Yoko and John" is what wags are calling Lennon, the latest attempt by Ono to reclaim and reframe an artistic legacy that needs no apologies, but could do with less airbrushing and fewer excuses. The weirdest of the jukebox musicals to hit Broadway, Lennon has a shapeless concept: Nine multi-ethnic performers, with broad Liverpudlian accents, enact, between songs, the greatest hits and misses of John Lennon's life in his own words. [There is, tellingly, just one Yoko, played more attractively and appealingly than the real thing by Julie Danao-Salkin. I don't mean to bash Ono unnecessarily, who elsewhere in the show allows self-deprecation about her own avant-garde work, but as usual she sets herself up for the abuse she thrives on swallowing.] The spoken-word portions of the performance are tepid, with talented performers like Chuck Cooper and Terrence Mann unable to mask a basic discomfort with their ventriloquism. Far more embarrassing are the "original" bits where the trench-coated FBI agents and Southern-accented squares who bedevil the couple sound off, only to be flattened by the couple's wisdom.
I admit to averting my eyes during the worst of it, usually alighting upon John Arnone's splendid projections, of the real Lennon and the three other Beatles, who are in Ono's version caricatures, "impure" pop artists to be dispensed with well before intermission. I was, however, all ears for much of the music, powerfully sung in places; Will Chase is the best of the Lennon clones, Julia Murney is lovely as Cynthia Lennon, and Marcy Harriell tears up "Woman is the Nigger of the World." After that, however, the Ono-phobic are advised to vacate the Broadhurst, as theme park-level reenactments of their squabbles and reconciliation take center stage (what must she think, as she watches from her seat in the audience?) and the show, which could have been a good deal shorter, slips into a coma. Lennon's death, cued to Danao-Salkin's limpid performance of "Grow Old with Me," is tactfully handled by director Don Scardino, who otherwise hobbles the piece with stiff staging and Joseph Malone's notably poor choreography. Here I admit to tears, not for Lennon, but for a life cut short, and a half-life saddled with a cheesy Broadway show that says more about its muse than its subject.
Except for Arnone's projections contribution, and OK sound design by Bobby Aitken, the design team, too, has not risen to the occasion--and even Arnone's work is vitiated by the ugly, but perhaps unavoidable, risers the 10-piece orchestra is positioned upon. Why Jane Greenwood wanted to take a costume credit is a mystery; the performers wear workaday jeans and street clothes, little of it period, and the flashier India segment seems to have been raided from Bombay Dreams. Not her finest hour. John Lennon was killed before the advent of moving lights but you wouldn't know it from Natasha Katz's howitzer of effects, an immodest concession to modern tastes. [PRG handled the lights; Masque Sound the audio; Scharff Weisberg the projections gear; and F&D Scene Changes the scenery.] A little more than a cast album, but a lot less than Broadway musical theatre, Lennon is, finally, a curiosity.--Robert Cashill
Seen off-Broadway: For many seasons it seems that off-Broadway has produced more toe-tapping, highly entertaining musicals than it ever has before. One just need to look at such shows as Altar Boyz, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, tick, tick…boom, and many more for proof. Add to that list the new Once Around the Sun at the Zipper Theatre on West 37th Street. This new musical by twin brother songwriters Robert and Steven Morris, and Joe Shane with Kellie Overbey writing the book is the perfect production for the Zipper Theatre which is also equipped with a very cool and accommodating bar in the lobby that further adds to the show’s Lower East Side hipster flair. The score by the brothers Morris and Shane is loaded with very catchy tunes that are more rock and pop than musical theatre, and that’s fine with me; this show requires it since it’s about a young musician who suddenly gets thrust into the spotlight. As the show’s title indicates, Once Around the Sun is a year in the life of a nobody who becomes an award-winning somebody. While the book is far from original, it seems like a good enough framing device to put the great songs on the stage. The performances from the cast, most notably Asa Somers as the pretty-boy rocker Kevin and John Hickok as his downward-spiraling uncle Lane, are nothing short of sensational. Beowulf Boritt has proven that he can do wonders with small, confined spaces in the past and he has done it once again. With a set that is comprised of three separate stages—one center stage and two raised stages flanking it—the action fits perfectly and moves with ease from scene to scene courtesy of Jace Alexander’s deft direction. Daniel Lawson’s costumes are on the money from the East Village gladrags to the smarmy rented tuxes of a wedding band to the slick West Coast duds worn by record execs as well as the latest American Idol winner Waldo (Kevin Mambo) who is given a wonderful moment to sing his latest single that only contains the word “girl.” Mambo and Jesse Lenat also pull double duty in two separate roles and do so exceptionally. Lenat is especially greasy as the record label exec who thinks he’s Cuban as well as the stoner guitarist in Kevin’s bar band, B-Side. The lighting by Jason Lyons was as close to perfect as I’ve seen show lighting and his use of color and other effects made the show even more entertaining. The sound by T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella rattled the house and gave the audience the feeling of being in a real rock concert, which is what Once Around the Sun boils down to. [Scenery was fabricated by D&D Productions (table fabricated by Daedalus Design & Production); lighting and video projection equipment supplied by GSD Productions, West Hempstead, NY; costume construction and alterations by Creative Costumes; and custom airbrushed wardrobe by SM Custom Airbrushing.] --Mark A. Newman