The cast of Lennon
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The cast of Lennon
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Ringo Starr is unlikely to enjoy Lennon, librettist-director Don Scardino's treatment of John Lennon's life and untimely death. In the storybook-theater choral reading that Scardino has engineered to pass for a new musical, drummer Starr is reduced to a goofy expression and a bathroom sight gag.

But Ringo, who happily and to his great financial gain played Dopey to his sidekick Beatle moptops, isn't alone in being disrespected here. Paul McCartney, with whom Lennon shares writing credit for a great percentage of The Beatles' greatest songs, is depicted as something of a wet blanket. Indeed, just about every character trotted out as a supporting player in Lennon's peregrinations is either caricatured or trashed in one way or another. Those insulted range from Queen Elizabeth (who twitters in fake ermine) to J. Edgar Hoover (who galumphs across the stage in red pumps) to Brian Epstein to the now nearly forgotten talk show host Mike Douglas, who never did anyone any harm.

Almost nobody escapes Scardino's blunt satirical pen except guess what pair: Lennon and his second wife, Yoko Ono, who receives "special thanks" on the program's title page. (Lennon's aunt Mimi, the woman who raised the Liverpool kid when his mother withdrew, is also spared.) As Scardino reads it, Lennon was a social and artistic activist waiting to happen until he encountered Ono at a gallery in one of history's great romantic moments and responded to her positive artistic statement, hung from the ceiling, of the single word "Yes." (He'd expected to hoot at a woman who did her performance art pieces in paper bags, eventually making her the world's richest bag lady.) According to the musical, once Lennon put the Beatles years and his first wife Cynthia behind him, he could do his lasting work: a blend of self-discovery and public crusading.

The advance skinny on Lennon has it that keeper-of-the-flame Ono is the muscle behind this production, but that's hearsay. Failing her or anyone else claiming responsibility for the hectic but thin script, it's Scardino who must accept blame for what's presented with great bravado as an account of Lennon's life. Many of the recorded facts are here, from the man's early Quarrymen days to the breakout of The Beatles in Germany to the group's chart conquering and eventual dissolution, right on through Lennon's subsequent years with Yoko and his assassination by Mark David Chapman. Also included are the songs that Lennon wrote for the most part after The Beatles' demise, in which he ruminated on himself as a bereft son ("Mother"), loving husband ("Woman"), and adoring father ("Beautiful Boy"). In addition, the anthems he composed that sacrificed melody for determination -- "Power to the People," "Woman is the Nigger of the World," "Give Peace a Chance" -- are performed under music director Jeffrey Klitz's guidance. Of all these songs, "Imagine" remains the stunner.

Stage biography is a traditionally problematic form, leading to many untheatrical endeavors. In Lennon, saints John and Yoko go about their peace crusades while more problematic chapters of their lives as a couple, and his life on his own, are omitted. The show offers no meaningful scrutiny of the complex Beatles collaboration, no mention of producer George Martin or even of John's son Julian. Ignored are the formation of Apple Records and the galvanizing effects of "Rubber Soul" and "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Of course, some facts must be dropped from a bio-musical, but mightn't we have expected an honest depiction of Lennon's drugging? Perhaps needless to say, there is also no consideration here of Lennon's psychological attraction to Ono as a possible surrogate for his mother, Julia, who was killed by a wayward bus when John was a youth.

What can be said in favor of Lennon is that Scardino does a slick job as director, moving the show right along. (Choreographer Joseph Malone's standard routines are no big help.) Upon a cluttered stage, set designer John Arnone has positioned three screens that display any number of distracting projections; lighting designer Natasha Katz and sound designer Bobby Aitken have also done their utmost to make the show look as flashy as possible. Scardino directs an accomplished, nine-person ensemble, all of whom sooner or later impersonate Lennon (often in granny glasses) but only one of whom appears as Yoko; that's the pretty Julie Danao-Salkin, who smiles more often than the woman she's playing habitually does. Will Chase, Chuck Cooper, Mandy Gonzalez, Marcy Harriell, Chad Kimball, Terrence Mann, Julia Murney, and Michael Potts, dressed in period-familiar costumes by Jane Greenwood, toil like yoked oxen and sing with amazing gusto; but their unflagging energy isn't enough to convince anyone of this musical's enduring worth or to make its attempts at turning Lennon's anti-war statements into outcries over the Iraq conflict seem like anything more than cheap gestures.