And tonight, Matthew, they’re gonna be The Beatles… That’s more or less the tone of Let It Be, the latest off-the-production-line, zip-through-the-hits jukebox musical/tribute show to make its way into London’s West End. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band (whose first single “Love Me Do” was released in October 1962), Let It Be is, I’d suggest, very much the kind of show that you know whether or not you’re going to enjoy before stepping into the auditorium. It’s a slick package of Fab Four choons strung together without anything as distracting as even the semblance of a narrative to get in the way of the music. It does exactly what it says on the tin - no less, and certainly no more. But whether that’s really quite enough to justify West End ticket prices is, I think, highly debatable.
For, though billed as an interactive “multi-media extravaganza,” Let It Be actually takes a rather simple - even basic - approach; it’s the type of show that seems not so much to have been directed as merely assembled. The touted multi-media element consists, in fact, of just two screens flanking the stage and some projections; on the former, before the show begins, one can tests one’s Beatles knowledge by answering such teasers as “What was John’s middle name?” and “Who played keyboards on Let It Be?” (So that’s the interactive element taken care of, then.) Later, the screens serve to offer some - decidedly sketchy - context to the group’s rise via clips of the usual shorthand 60s signifiers (Flower Power, Vietnam, Twiggy), as well as vintage ads and some animations.
The show proper opens not with The Beatles in the Cavern Club, as might be expected, but rather with them performing “She Loves You” in - yes - the Prince of Wales Theatre as part of the 1963 Royal Variety Performance; it’s one of the wittier touches in a production that’s otherwise notably short on them. From there on, it’s a mostly linear skip through thirty or so of the most familiar Beatles tracks, with Ian B. Garcia, Michael Gagliano, John Brosnan and Phil Martin - four of the eight actors alternating these roles - ripping energetically through the songs and offering their best impersonations of Paul, John, George and Ringo respectively. Since between-song chatter is kept to an absolute minimum, the quartet don’t have much opportunity to develop personalities, but they’re all clearly capable performers, with Garcia’s Macca-ish nods and shakes and Gagliano’s wry Lennon-isms especially winning.
A tender “Blackbird,” a beautiful, dreamy “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a sensational “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” are among the standout performances. But my problem with Let It Be isn’t just the flagrant and unsubtle ways in which the show presents the Beatles as icons of Britishness - the poster situating them within the Union Jack, no less, and (oh dear) red, white and blue lighting used for some of the musical numbers - but the fact that the production is so conventional and complacent in its design.
Was it too much to hope that the show would do something really creative with the group’s music - something along the lines of Cirque de Soleil’s Love or Julie Taymor’s film Across The Universe, say? I think not, and the playing-it-safe approach that’s been taken in Let It Be becomes slightly dispiriting as the evening goes on. (Visually, the show’s idea of innovation is the horrid kitschy cartoons used to illustrate “Eleanor Rigby.”) At the very least, some more left-field song choices wouldn’t have gone amiss. About the only track that comes as a surprise is “A Day in the Life,” and it proves to be one of the finest moments of the evening, a really superb closer to the first half, dynamically delivered. Since the performers are clearly adept at handling the group’s more complex material, it’s a shame that Curatolo and his collaborators have chosen to take so few chances with the show and to create something that feels so impersonal, and such a risk-averse nostalgia-fest, overall.
The music that is here still has its wonderful variety and vibrancy, of course, and it still proves capable of generating intense happiness; doubtless you won’t be able to resist “na-na-na-na-na-na-na”-ing along to “Hey Jude” at the end. But songs so good - and so familiar - deserve a more considered and creative theatrical approach, meaning that Let It Be ends up as proficient entertainment that could’ve been so much more. And whether you’re prepared to shell out up to £60 for what is, essentially, a glorified Stars in Their Eyes special will be very much down to the extent of your own Beatlemania to determine.
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes. Booking until 19th January 2013. Website here.
Reviewed for The Public Reviews.