Imagine: a 'Lennon' musical without the Beatles' hits

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If you can't make good theatre out of Lennon then you are probably in the wrong profession. But why the cynicism? The producers surely had all the ingredients for a blockbuster show - songs that nearly all of us can hum and a life story that is compelling.

And yet theatre is what is most painfully missing from Lennon, which opened on Broadway on Sunday. Some critics are calling it the latest of the "jukebox" musicals to hit New York in the vein of (the wildly successful) Mama Mia. But this jukebox takes $100 bills only and is, I fear, a mighty swizz.

At least give us a decent set design. For its visual richness, Lennon relies almost entirely on backdrop projections. It just leaves you thinking "low budget".

The most creative stroke may have been the decision by Don Scardino, the writer and director, to have all nine of his performers take turns to portray Lennon. Apparently, this is meant to denote the universality of his appeal. You know which actor is playing Lennon when they wear round wire-rim glasses.

The oddly amateurish feel about the show is not the fault of the cast. All have voices worthy of the Great White Way and when Julia Murney takes us through Lennon's paternal ode to his now 30-year-old son, Sean, "Beautiful Boy", the theatre began, at last, to resonate. The favourite with the audiences is likely to be Will Chase who emerges as the main Lennon. His performance was probably the most affecting.

Scardino faithfully takes us through the life of Lennon from his birth in 1940 - our cues here are a handy back-projection of Churchill and a joke about Hitler and his one ball - through to his death outside the Dakota Building 25 years ago.

The problem is that the show necessarily becomes terribly linear. And then he met Paul (portrayed here by an African-American actor), and then he married Cynthia, and then he met Ono. And then, and then and then ...

Yoko Ono collaborated throughout the show's gestation and it is no surprise that the largest chunk of it deals with her and Lennon's sometimes controversial love and partnership.

Musically, it also largely a post-Beatles affair. Infuriatingly, we are treated to only one original Beatles song and that is "The Ballad of John and Yoko", plus two of the Fab Four cover version songs, performed on this stage by four of the female cast members. Some Lennon fans might consider a musical about his life without more Beatles content something close to heresy.

The assassination of Lennon gives the director a chance finally to grab us. We all know it is coming, after all. And there is poignancy when Will Chase's Lennon confesses near the night's end to feeling like he is on the brink of a new life, better than his first 40 years. But then Scardino bottles out, recording Lennon's violent death through the recollections of a policemen on the scene.

Ono says now that her husband would have loved this show. She should know, but you have to wonder. He might, of course, have had a good chuckle because at the end of the day, Lennon is just daft, telling us almost nothing about him we didn't know already and missing nearly every opportunity to make us laugh or cry. But we do at least hum, especially through the end number. And that is "Imagine".

The reviews

"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 ...This drippy version of his life ... suggests 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." - New York Times

"Lennon ... does everything it can to blow John's simple songs into something garish and grand. This they call a tribute?" - New York Daily News

"Ono released a couple of 'new' songs for Lennon - 'India, India,' ... and 'I Don't Want to Lose You,' ... to illustrate Lennon's return to Ono after a separation. Five years later he was dead and Ono has been protecting ... their love story ever since ... Ultimately, Lennon seems less like his story than an extended remix of 'The Ballad of John and Yoko'. - The Boston Globe