The ads for "Lennon," the benign new musical celebrating the life of pop superstar John Lennon, proclaim: "His words. His music. His story."
What seems to be missing, though, is the man himself - and any sense of theatricality. Instead, what we get is a bland stage biography, much of it recited directly to the audience, while a hardworking cast does its best to sell more than two dozen of Lennon's songs, a majority of them from the post-Beatles era.
But then, this unsurprising examination of Lennon is filtered through the prism of his widow, Yoko Ono, who arrived on the scene after the Beatles' biggest successes. She gave her blessing and, reportedly, her considerable input to the project, which opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theatre after several postponements.
It's hard to see what could have been done to jump-start this musical, directed and conceived by Don Scardino. The facts are here, presented in the most dutiful manner possible, starting with Lennon's birth in 1940 while Britain was being bombarded by the Nazis.
The show outlines his turbulent childhood: brought up by an aunt after his parents split. The lad re-established a relationship with his mother when he was 14, only to have her die several years later, killed in a traffic accident by a drunken policeman.
It was in his teens that Lennon formed a friendship with Paul McCartney, and the musical races through the creation of the Beatles and the group's astonishing success with a rapidity that is head-spinning.
One of the conceits of "Lennon" is to have the entire nine-person cast, at one time or another during the show, impersonate the man. They do this mostly by donning wire-rim glasses and affecting bad Liverpool accents.
Yet you can't fault them when they open their mouths to sing. Lennon wrote some extraordinary songs, pop in idiom but universal in feeling, and these musical-theater performers put them over with gusto. The songs chosen by Scardino comment, more or less, on Lennon's life. Will Chase, a fiercely energetic singer, dominates the Lennon impersonations, primarily, one suspects, because he most looks like the man. Chase scores strongly in "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," a scorching duet with the talented Marcy Harriell.
Midway through Act 1, Lennon meets Ono (portrayed by a stunning Julie Danao-Saikin) at an art gallery opening, and for the rest of the show, their relationship - its ups, downs and in-betweens - takes center stage.
We also get love-ins, peace demonstrations and Lennon's extended battles with immigration authorities. Most of this is told rather than dramatized although there are some feeble attempts at humor - recreating television interviews with David Frost and Mike Douglas, for example, as well as a tired poke at FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who wears red high heels as he clomps across the stage.
And there are the inevitable marches through the theater's aisles, particularly during the first-act finale when daisies are handed out to the audience as the cast sings "Give Peace a Chance."
The show, which has the band on stage behind the performers, is never given a chance to build dramatically.
Each song rises or fails on its own, giving the evening a jagged, uneven momentum.
Yet, even with those limitations, there are some special musical moments. Among the more potent numbers: Chuck Cooper delivering a commanding version of "Instant Karma," and Julia Murney singing "Beautiful Boy," a wistful appreciation of young Sean Lennon by his father.
Lennon's death - he was gunned down in front of his Manhattan apartment building in December 1980 –is handled simply and effectively. Cooper plays a policeman who rushes to the scene, only to find the fatally wounded Lennon.
There is one jolting, transfixing interlude, which occurs near the end of the show. A film clip of Lennon and Ono is shown. Lennon's distinct voice fills the theater, and he sings one of his best-known anthems, "Imagine." There's more drama in that brief scene than in all the rest of the show. Lennon the man, in all his quirky, contradictory glory, finally makes an appearance.
Jukebox musicals - shows based on the songs of a popular entertainer - always raise one big question: Should you plop down $100 for a theater ticket or just stay home and listen to your old records?
In the case of "Lennon," the answer is easy: Light one up and put on the stereo.
The musical, directed and conceived by Don Scardino, not only adds nothing to your appreciation or understanding of John Lennon. If anything, its listless presentation of the events of his life will diminish your sense of who he was.
The "text" consists of memoirs by Lennon himself, some reminiscences by his widow, Yoko Ono, and comments from other public figures. The result is a collage without any focus.
At the very least, for example, a theatrical piece about Lennon should give you the visceral experience of his death.
This one opts instead for a kind of journalistic presentation, as we hear the recollection of a policeman who arrived on the scene shortly after the murder. I'm afraid that falls under the heading of Cop-Out.
Rather than having a single actor play Lennon, a racially diverse group of nine recites his words and sings his songs, allegedly to show his universality. The most effective of them is Will Chase, who almost captures Lennon's offhand style, but overall the effect is to blur the edginess of his personality.
A sample of the show's cutesy cleverness is that, on the few occasions we see Lennon performing with the Beatles, all four of "the lads," as they were called, are portrayed by women. The image is so goofy that someone arriving late might imagine he had stumbled into "Spamalot" next door.
Instead of dramatizing what was in fact an extremely dramatic life and time, the show invariably settles for the obvious. At the end of the first act, for example, to re-create the mood of the '60s, the cast, singing "Give Peace a Chance," comes out into the audience passing out flowers. (At least when Milos Forman did his film of "Hair" he captured some of the poignancy of the period - here all we see is its knee-jerk anger and glib selfcongratulation.)
Even the music seems cliched, since some of the arrangements have more to do with the styles of our time than Lennon's, especially the "American Idol" caterwauling for the women.
Chuck Cooper, one of the nine Lennons, has power when he sings, which is all too seldom. But poor Terrence Mann, another of the nine, also has to impersonate several famous figures - Winston Churchill, David Frost and Queen Elizabeth. They all seemed amateurish.
Then, so does everything about the show. Apparently there was no budget for a choreographer, because the little dancing there is would embarrass the director of a high school musical.
The money didn't go for John Arnone's sets, which consist largely of projections. Nor could the costumes have been costly - though Jane Greenwood has captured the scruffiness of the time well. If the portrait of Lennon had any force, the chintzy way it is presented wouldn't matter. A bare stage would have been fine. At least it wouldn't cost much to tour. And I see no reason why it shouldn't hit the road immediately.
After all the rumors, postponements, alarms and excursions the bio-musical caused, "Lennon" opened last night at the Broadhurst Theatre with that special note of unsurprise.
It benefits from its nine-person cast, superb from top to bottom, and, let's face it, expectations so reduced as to be almost minimal.
It suffers from a concept and book by the show's director, Don Scardino, that is so shaky it can scarcely stagger from one side of the stage to the other.
You also constantly feel that the show is positioned between a rock and a hard Ono.
This is more hagiography than biography - a grayish whitewash of John Lennon's character, who appears heroically bowdlerized.
Biography is customarily too linear for the Broadway musical. Fantasy continually intrudes on facts, while so many gray-haired baby boomers have their own view or image of Lennon, Yoko Ono and some little pop group called The Beatles.
Scardino shapes his musical as a celebration, or, put more frankly, a sort of concert. Seemingly in deference to Ono's presumed wishes, the script feels concentrated on the post-Beatles years.
Although the Beatles era actually takes up the first half of the show, it somehow feels relegated to mere prologue. When we are offered a glimpse of The Beatles in action, starting from that formative stint in a Hamburg nightclub, they are played cutely by the four female members of the cast.
Scardino's moment of originality comes in having Lennon himself played at various times by all nine cast members, irrespective of gender or ethnicity, and bound together by only a Merseyside accent (in most cases, remarkably accurate) and a pair of signature steel-rimmed spectacles.
This intentionally bizarre multiplicity of Lennons does suggest his iconic universality but doesn't really add much else. The conceit wears pretty thin after the first 10 minutes of amusement. It never helps us better understand Lennon, his world or his music.
A quarter-century after his death, John Lennon still is essentially a child of our own times, and despite offering a few flaws - a touch of drug abuse, a tad of infidelity and a dollop of bad-boy craziness - the final effect here is more saintly than convincing.
John Arnone's setting is drab, and Jane Greenwood's costumes more serviceable than imaginative. But the cast really comes through for Scardino -and Lennon.
It is unfair to single out any of a virtually flawless ensemble, but - being unfair - Chad Kimball and especially Will Chase excel, given much of the heavy character lifting of Lennon himself; Chuck Cooper is superlative throughout; Terrence Mann has a lovely series of comic cameos, and the wildcat kitten Marcy Harriel is a star in the making.
All in all, this is a fabulous cast.
And, of course, there's always the music! But the price of a ticket can buy a few CDs you can keep, cherish and celebrate longer than a theater stub.
In the immortal words of Yoko Ono, "Aieeeee!" A fierce primal scream - of the kind Ms. Ono is famous for as a performance and recording artist - is surely the healthiest response to the agony of "Lennon," the jerry-built musical shrine that opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater.
The title character of "Lennon" is, of course, John Lennon, the onetime Beatle and (more to the purposes of this show) Ms. Ono's artistic collaborator and husband, who died nearly 25 years ago. Biographies of Lennon indicate that he was a man of corrosive intelligence, overflowing creativity, Lucullan indulgences and enough inner demons to fill a county in hell.
This drippy version of his life, written and directed with equal clunkiness by Don Scardino and featuring a Muzak-alized assortment of Lennon's non-"Beatles" songs, suggests that he was just a little lost boy looking for love in all the wrong places until he found Ms. Ono and discovered his inner adult. When his adoring fans and a hitherto tame press turned on him in the late-1960's, Lennon told a journalist that his public had never seen him clearly to begin with, that even when he was a schoolboy, those who actually knew him never "thought of me as cuddly."
Yet cuddly is how Lennon (who is portrayed by five actors) emerges here, like a pocket-size elf doll who delivers encouraging mantras of self-help and good will when you scratch his tummy. "We're all one," "Love is the answer," "Be real" - these and other Lennonisms are projected in repeated succession on a screen before the show begins. Little that follows goes beyond such fortune-cookie wisdom.
"Lennon" is the latest in the bland crop of shows known as jukebox musicals that have been spreading over Broadway like kudzu, from the mega-hit "Mamma Mia!" (the Abba musical) to the super-flop "Good Vibrations" (Beach Boys). "Lennon" fits the jukebox mold, with its regulation lineup of perky, puppyish performers and brimming quota of recognizable songs, delivered with lots of volume and little dancing.
But unlike other recent examples of the genre, "Lennon" deals directly with the man behind its music. This makes a certain sense, since so much of Lennon's later work was self-reflective. Aided by projections (the scenic design is by John Arnone) of drawings by Lennon and photographs of the artist at different ages, the nine-member ensemble takes a synoptic slog through the life and times of its subject, annotated by autobiographical songs.
Mr. Scardino and Ms. Ono (whose name appears in large type in the credits, where she is accorded "special thanks") have said that using five actors to portray Lennon reflects the idea that the man meant different things to different people. Yet instead of making Lennon seem multifaceted and multiform, this device turns him into a one-size-fits-all alter ego to the world.
The subtext, to borrow from a Dr. Pepper commercial of years ago, is something like "I'm a Lennon/ You're a Lennon/ He's a Lennon/ She's a Lennon/ Wouldn't you like to be a Lennon too?"
And because one of the actors, the charismatic Will Chase, looks and sounds much more like Lennon than the others, your focus is magnetically pulled toward him in ways that upset the show's balance.
Stories of Lennon's substance abuse, womanizing and acts of violence are kept to a minimum. (His drug arrest for marijuana is presented as a frame-up; his use of heroin is never mentioned.) It is asserted that traumatized by the absence of stabilizing parents in his childhood - he was born in 1940 - Lennon devoted most of his young adulthood to trying on personae that didn't fit.
These artificial selves would seem to embrace both his notorious dalliance with Indian mysticism and his work as a member of the Beatles, biographical chapters presented with dismissive flippancy. Then, John meets Yoko, and the tone shifts to the kind of romantic earnestness usually accompanied by a thousand violins. After singing "Mind Games" with Yoko with saccharine piety, Lennon says, "Our life became our art."
This epiphany occurs well before the end of the first act. Which means the rest of the show reverently portrays the persecution (by comic-book F.B.I. agents and journalists) and deification of Lennon and Ms. Ono, up to his murder in 1980. It is worth noting that while most of the characters are played interchangeably by the ensemble, Ms. Ono is embodied by one actress only (Julie Danao-Salkan) and registers as improbably constant as the North Star.
On this Ono-centric level, "Lennon" is not without precedent. "John and Yoko: A Love Story," a 1985 television movie that had Ms. Ono's official sanction, and Ms. Ono's own musical, "New York Rock," produced Off Broadway in 1994, were similar in their emphases. But while the world may love a love story, it seems safe to say that Lennon ultimately will be remembered less as the husband of Ms. Ono than as a member of the group that changed the face of popular music.
There is little corroborative evidence for this epochal status in "Lennon." The songs' arrangements, performed by an onstage orchestra, and vocal delivery tend toward either aggressive Broadway belting or Carpenters-style schmaltz, neither of which was exactly Lennon's approach. The talented cast members, who include formidable Broadway veterans like Terrence Mann and Chuck Cooper, seldom evoke the man they are celebrating.
Mr. Chase does manage to summon both the sardonic and wistful qualities that pervaded Lennon's voice, without stooping to vulgar impersonation. Julia Murney does a lovely job with Lennon's paternal ode "Beautiful Boy," one of the few moments that is not oversold. And Marcy Harriell puts over "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" with a rafter-rattling intensity that, while not exactly Lennonesque, certainly makes an impression.
Chart-toppers like "Give Peace a Chance" and "Instant Karma" are accorded the full, painful love-in treatment à la "Hair." (Daisies are distributed during "Give Peace a Chance.") But while the songs' musical hooks may still dig into your memory, the image of the man who wrote them is likely to feel fuzzier after the show than it did before.
At the end, a clip from Mr. Lennon and Ms. Ono's video of his song "Imagine" is shown. And there before you is the real John Lennon - lean-faced, thin-lipped, cryptic, shyly exhibitionist. It says everything about the vapid "Lennon" that your instinctive response to this complex apparition is, "Who is that man anyway, and what is he doing here?"
Compared with the other lavishly produced karaoke contests luring middle-aged rock fans to Broadway, Lennon (* * out of four) would seem to have a higher purpose. This musical tribute to John Lennon, which opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theatre, aims to celebrate the personal and creative integrity of an artist whose brilliance and sheer goodness were never fully appreciated by those who misunderstood her.
That's right, "her." Oh, sorry - you didn't think I was referring to old John, did you? I meant his widow, Yoko Ono, whose permission was required to stage this production, and whose loving but self-serving fingerprints are all over it.
It would be ridiculous, of course, to try to tell John Lennon's story without including key roles both on stage and behind it for the woman he considered his soul mate. And I don't doubt that Ono, who licensed the producers and librettist/director Don Scardino rights to her late husband's songs, wanted to honor its subject, who wouldn't have wanted his legacy to be dominated by his role in that seminal supergroup The Beatles.
But suggesting that the Fab Four was some inconsequential pop act that provided Lennon a stepping stone to his true calling is as unfair to him as it is to the other Beatles. They come off here - in that chunk of the first act that they're acknowledged at all - as a buffoonish boy band. Paul McCartney, whose melodic genius was as integral to The Beatles' rise, and thus Lennon's, as any other factor, gets even shorter shrift in Lennon than he has from snobbish rock critics.
Ono, in contrast, is revealed as a visionary worthy of her partner. And as played by the lovely Julie Danao-Sulkin, this Yoko is so surreally virtuous, so patient and noble in the suffering heaped on her by sexist, Asian-bashing detractors - and a straying husband, at one point - you half expect her to endure that crucifixion Lennon envisioned for himself in The Ballad of John and Yoko.
Lennon's title character is portrayed in turn by actors of different genders, races and ethnicities, a conceit that reinforces how his music and activism embraced the scope of human experience. One questions the point, though, of casting a woman as Elton John, or having a black man appear as Ed Sullivan and segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, beyond seeking a subversive or comic edge.
There are, thankfully, a number of playful flourishes in Lennon- including a joking reference to Ono's, um, controversial singing voice - along with genuinely moving moments. But when you imagine all the people whom Lennon's songs and spirit touched, you can't help but wish him better.