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Lennon: Through a Glass Onion

If the walrus was Paul, who was John? This show attempts to answer.

Stewart D'Arrietta and John R. Waters in Lennon: Through a Glass Onion at the Union Square Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

The latest entry to hit New York in the popular dead-folks-in-concert genre, Lennon: Through a Glass Onion, joins an already saturated market. In the past decade, New York audiences have experienced John Lennon thrice on Broadway (2005's Lennon, 2010's Rain, and 2013's Let It Be). A trip from the "Imagine" mosaic in Central Park's Strawberry Fields down to the Union Square Theatre (where Through a Glass Onion is showing) might give you the impression that the beloved former Beatle is the patron saint of this city and its restless artistic spirit — someone whose legacy is to be shared and enjoyed by all people. But make no mistake: A conspicuously placed program note reminds us that "John Lennon" is a trademark of Yoko Ono Lennon. "Imagine no possessions" indeed.

With Ono's blessing, Lennon: Through a Glass Onion is the creation of Australian actor John R. Waters and Stewart D'Arrietta. They've been touring the show off and on for over 20 years, ever since they first performed it in a Sydney hotel in 1992. Perhaps this high-concept tribute concert might feel more at home in a hotel bar or similarly intimate space. Sadly, it feels awfully small on this large and empty proscenium stage.

With an austere setup of just a piano (skillfully played by D'Arrietta) and an acoustic guitar, Waters performs 35 of Lennon's songs, ranging from his time as a Beatle through his solo career: There's "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,'' "Help," and (of course) "Glass Onion," to name a few. Naturally, "Imagine" is the big finale.

One difference between this show and so many other dead-people concerts is that Waters makes no attempt to impersonate his subject. Adorned in simple black jeans and a leather jacket, Waters sports a short haircut; he doesn't even wear Lennon's signature circular glasses. He also uses his own singing voice, a distinctive, gravely voice that differs sharply from Lennon's and sounds as if someone is revving a diesel engine. It's not unpleasant to hear, but it certainly colors the tone of the music, making the songs feel harsh, almost angry.

Like a cabaret act from beyond the grave, Waters lubricates Lennon's songs with little bits of wit and wisdom, spoken in a Liverpudlian accent. While he's not trying to impersonate John Lennon's singing voice or appearance, the cadence and accent are unmistakable. It almost feels like we're watching the cranky septuagenarian rocker who tragically never was, persisting into the 21st century on his memories and popular song catalog, his voice inextricably changed from years of abuse.

"It's funny about Yoko," he starts off before launching into a story about his schoolboy sexual fantasies. Some of these anecdotes seem to be drawn from things Lennon actually said in interviews and onstage, while others (like an awkward observation of Mark David Chapman moments before he shot Lennon in front of the Dakota) are completely fabricated. The thoughts often feel disjointed, with stories having only the vaguest relationship to their corresponding songs. It's a collective stream of consciousness from the flower-child generation, tinged with the bitterness of age and experience. The net effect is something akin to a séance, with Waters channeling his subject like a musical medium, telling stories from Lennon's life while singing his greatest hits.

In truth, it's very hard to go wrong with these songs. They're all classics for which the audience has a preexisting affinity. If you just sing them halfway decently and get the crowds nodding along, you've already done most of the job. However, this strange concept sabotages any hope for the event to build into a satisfying groove. "Come together...right now," Waters sings with increasing energy. The audience leans in for the inevitable, "Over me," but it never arrives: Waters is already monologuing about something else. This is the musical equivalent of Lucy setting up the football for Charlie Brown and then pulling it away at the last minute.

You'll land on your backside with a thud of disappointment following the last note of this 90-minute nostalgia concert. After 22 years, it might be time to throw this onion out. It's starting to rot.

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