NEW YORK – “Let It Be” is a musical revue, a variety show of the Beatles hit songs, performed by four mop-headed Beatle look-alikes. This motley crew for the past few weeks has been entertaining Broadway’s summer audiences with an old-fashioned concert rendition of the Fab Four’s tunes at the St. James Theater on West 44th Street.
“Let It Be,” which takes its title from the last Beatles album, is by no means a great show, but its United States director and music supervisor John Maher knows how to engineer an evening of passable entertainment and fun. As the Playbill notes, it is a celebration of the music of the Beatles in honor of the 50th anniversary of their first recording. It debuted in London last fall and is still running there at the Savoy Theater. Because of the contractual agreements, the Beatles name cannot be uttered and none of the actors can be addressed by their Beatles birthright names.
The show begins during the group’s early gigs in Liverpool’s Cavern Club and ends up with their singing at their Apple Corps building in London, where they recorded their last album. The songs are not really performed in any chronological order; it’s more of a scattered sort of affair: a “Sgt. Pepper” song here, a “White Album” there, “Magical Mystery Tour” in Act Two. But all of the songs you expect get covered, including “Revolution,” “Eleanor Rigby” and “Come Together.” Nothing is overlooked, even their psychedelic and politically active final days. Their music is a wonder to behold; they are still the greatest and most influential act of the 60’s rock era. That it was all written between 1962 and 1969 is unbelievable.
The Beatles broke up in 1970, though things were not formally finalized until December 1974. John Lennon was shot and killed in 1980; George Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001; Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are still musically active.
“Let It Be” has rotating performers. The cast I saw – James Fox (Lennon), Luke Roberts (McCartney), John Brosnan (Harrison), and Chris McBurney (Starr) – are all excellent musicians and acceptable singers. Mr. Brosnan is a little short to play Harrison and Mr. Roberts is not tall enough to play McCartney, but in this kind of affair, it really doesn’t matter.
At the keyboard is Ryan Alex Farmery, who I guess is playing George Martin, the Beatles’ brilliant producer, arranger and mentor, who worked on most of their songs throughout their career. Since the show uses the concert format, the story is told through the group’s songs; the four performers only speak to the audience when they cheer them on, ask them to sing along or wave their hands, or stand up and boogie-woogie. I have never seen so many middle-age folks leap to their feet and improvise rock and roll dances in the theater.
When there is a location change, such as to “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where the Beatles made their first American appearance, or their 1965 concert at Shea Stadium, grainy video designs are flashed on a screen. There are also commercials to let the audience know what ‘60s year a song debuted.
Everything in “Let It Be” is facile, including the costumes and scenery. The only thing about the show’s primitive physical production that impressed me was Jason Lyons’s appropriate stadium-like lighting.
Any production faults were brushed aside by the audience – filled with a variety of age groups, from young families to original Beatles fans – who were obviously having a marvelous time. For them, just hearing the songs becomes a moving, stirring theatrical experience.
This is not the first Beatles musical to hit Broadway. Back in 1977, “Beatlemania,” an unauthorized nostalgic revue, was a popular hit for two years, though the Beatles sued the producers for several million dollars in damages. In 2005, “Lennon” arrived, a musical created with Mr. Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono, which the New York Times called an “Ono-centric” view of the subjects’ lives, and lasted six weeks. “Rain,” another band concert-type take on the Beatles work, was on Broadway for several months in 2010.
“Let It Be” originally was scheduled to run until Dec. 29, but will close on Sept. 1.
Critic Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.