MSQ Review: Backbeat – Ahmanson Theatre

Take a look at the early days of a group of musicians. Does that sound familiar? It is.

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Maybe this equation sounds familiar: Take a look at the early days of a group of musicians. Let various key players tell their version of the story and intersperse songs they’ve made famous. Then, just in case the show wasn’t satisfying, finish the evening with a mini-concert. Does it sound like Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia!, and Million Dollar Quartet? You can now add Backbeat to that list.

Before they were The Beatles, they were John (Andrew Knott), Paul (Daniel Healy), George (Daniel Westwick), Ringo (Adam Sopp), Pete Best (Oliver Bennett) who was on drums at the time and Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) who was playing bass. Adapted from the movie of the same name, Backbeat explores the growing pains of the lads from Liverpool. Primarily set in Hamburg where the band is playing cover songs of early rock ‘n’ roll in the dingiest of clubs, we find not the adorable young boys we’ve come to love, but a group of guys who are difficult, antagonistic, always looking for a shag, and smoking up a storm.  

Stuart was a painter when he was recruited by John to join the band. His desire to remain an artist and his passion for photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Leanne Best), who he meets while in Germany, makes for heated exchanges in this play with music. Stu doesn’t think The Beatles will amount to much; John thinks they’ll conquer the world. The rest, as they say, is history. In the program, Backbeat claims to “stick quite closely to the historical facts,” then goes on to list some of their changes “for dramatic effect.”

The cast, particularly Mr. Blood, Ms. Best, and Mr. Knott give impassioned performances, but they are saddled with a script that relies on so many clichéd lines they make some of McCartney’s most insipid lyrics seem profound. Director David Leveaux seems to be following the advice of Spinal Tap as the dial on the whole show seems like it’s turned up to eleven. It is so loud that my head was pounding at intermission. The use of smoke on stage and smoking by the actors also left my eyes burning.

Apparently the story of The Beatles’ early days wasn’t enough. After 2-1/2 hours (including intermission) we were cajoled into standing up and hearing full band versions of many of the songs we’ve already heard. Though one of the shows simplest delights – watching Ms. Best rock back and forth on a speaker while radiating joy – it reminds me of a performance I once saw of Ben Vereen in a touring production of Pippin. Realizing that the production itself wasn’t any good, he sang several songs after the show had ended in what appeared to be an effort to leave the audience with something memorable. Backbeat just left me in pain.  

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