Why would a playwright emphasize the romance of two auxiliary characters when there's a revolution known as The Beatles forming around them? The audience at Backbeat: The Birth Of The Beatles, which just transferred from London's West End to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles (where it runs until March 1), was likely drawn in by the magnificent band in the show's title. Unfortunately, Backbeat, directed by five-time Tony Award-nominee David Leveaux (Nine), shifts the focus away from that band and cuts to a couple with no chemistry.
In 1960, John Lennon (Andrew Knott, who originated the role in the West End production of Backbeat), convinces his struggling painter friend Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) to join his band, along with Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy, from the original), George Harrison (Daniel Westwick) and Pete Best (Oliver Bennett, also from the London production). After several moniker attempts, they finally rename themselves "The Beatles" and land a gig in a seedy club in Hamburg, Germany. Stuart quickly tires of the band, especially when he falls in love with an enticing photographer, Astrid (Leanne Best). While the two go off to take photographs and make love, the group waits around at the club, missing gigs because John refuses to allow the band to go on without his best friend.
Leveaux, who also directed the original production at the Duke of York's Theatre, makes some interesting choices with his staging. Often, the band will play a song and a disaffected German will dance spastically in front of them. Once, it's ironic. More than once, and it seems to be mocking the musicians themselves, a curious gesture since the band is THE BEATLES. To top it off, the audience only hears snippets of songs before the mobile stage on which The Beatles perform slides abruptly back, allowing Astrid and Stuart's boring love saga to take center stage. Their romance also plays out on a projector, in a wedding-style video montage depicting their blossoming courtship.They snap photographs of each other, entwine hands, put on each other's shades, and other clichés that seem more appropriate for an ‘80s music video than a reflection of true love.
Backbeat is based on a 1994 film of the same name by Iain Softley (Wings Of The Dove). Softley co-wrote the musical adaptation with Stephen Jeffreys (The Libertine), and filled it with such insipid lines as Astrid's, "I didn't fall in love with a Bass Player; I fell in love with an artist."
Another problem with the play's central romance is that it's missing a key component. The script dances around the relationship between John Lennon and Stu Sutcliffe, the artist Lennon was so adamant about having in the band -- even though he barely played guitar and didn't even want to be there. Since Backbeat does not explore John's sexual desire for Stu -- which is the only logical reason why such a love triangle would exist -- John's actions lack motivation. Since Stu never wanted to be a Beatle and is superfluous to the band we know as The Beatles, there's no inherent drama.
There are many fascinating stories about The Beatles, but for the most part, Backbeat barely grazes the surface of them. There's a scene where Paul and John rework John's draft of a song into the classic "Love Me Do," that is thrilling. More scenes like that, scenes that explore the moments that make The Beatles so iconic, would make the whole play thrilling. But in Backbeat, the band's ousting of Pete Best for Ringo Starr -- a moment primed with dramatic energy -- is criminally underdeveloped. It is not explored that Best's ego aggravated the other band members. There is no mention of the fans who protested the decision, demanding their Pete back. The impact would have been strengthened if the narrative cared about The Beatles more than Stu and Astrid. Sadly, that's not the case.
The actors depicting The Beatles are talented. They get down the gestures and actually play their own instruments, but they have none of the X-Factor that made Paul, John, and George a phenomenon. Knott is energetic as Lennon, but too screechy. Healy as McCarthy is better in quieter moments. He has a lovely solo, auditioning for a producer with "A Touch of Honey." Westwick-as-Harrison captures the boyish innocence of a 16-year-old boy in the big, bad city. As for Blood and Best, well, they could be fantastic actors, but because the couple they portray alternates between bland and caustic, and because we spend most of the time with this bland and caustic couple, we resent them for it.
The set and sound do not help with this resentment. Sound Designer Richard Brooker lets the microphones blare, so everything sung sounds shrill. Most of the lyrics are indecipherable, despite being some of the most famous lyrics of all time ("I Want To Hold Your Hand," "I Saw Her Standing There"). The set, by designer Andrew D. Edwards, is dank and smoky, devoid of color or light. It depicts the nightclub scene The Beatles played in before they hit it big, but it's more than a little bit gloomy.
It's appreciated that the creators of BackBeat: The Birth of the Beatles attempted something different, not wanting to follow the same blueprint as another jukebox musical like Jersey Boys. They deliberately tried for something stark and noir. However, part of why Jersey Boys resonates is because the music seeps into the souls of its audience, and the story brings an intimacy to the larger-than-life characters the audience came to see. Backbeat teases audiences with what they want (those great Beatles songs and fresh stories), but it doesn't deliver.