by contributor Samuel L. Leiter
Considering the place of former Beatle John Lennon in New York’s cultural history, one would think it about time that Lennon: Through a Glass Onion, a jukebox tribute show (created in Sydney, Australia, in 1992 in honor of his songs and life), has finally made its way to a local stage. The show was conceived by and stars John R. Waters (not to be confused with the movie director of Hairspray), a 65-year-old English-born, Australian-raised singer-actor-guitarist who, with his Australian pianist-singer accompanist, Stewart D’Arrietta, has toured the show widely over the years, including a six-month stint on London’s West End.
The barebones show could not be simpler. D’Arrietta, who sings with a gravelly Tom Waits-like voice (in 2005 he portrayed Waits hereabouts in a cabaret show called Belly of a Drunken Piano), sits stage right at the ivories, wearing a fedora, while Waters stands stage left at a microphone, barely moving except to fetch and return the acoustic guitar he plays now and then.
Waters’s short-cropped silver hair frames a high cheekboned face suggesting a mash-up of Peter Finch, Paul Newman, and Paul Freeman, and he wears basic rocker black—jeans, T-shirt, leather jacket, and studded belt over his trim physique. When he sings, his hands hang at his sides, rarely moving; only when he speaks does he emphasize his words with gestures. The stage is bare, visual variety being offered chiefly by Anthony “Bazz” Barrett’s lighting—mainly varicolored smoky beams—with a minimum of projections, as in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” A pianist, a mostly immobile singer in black, a guitar, thirty-four songs by Lennon or Lennon and Paul McCartney interlarded with chatter for around 75 uninterrupted minutes: and that’s all there is.
The chatter, spoken with a Lennonesque Liverpudlian accent, uses words from Lennon’s own commentaries, as well as some imaginary ones, providing a rambling, unchronological narrative of Lennon’s now familiar experiences (including the Beatles breakup, his involvement in radical politics, and the racist vitriol directed at Yoko Ono) and, as distortedly shown here, a sense of his mostly laid-back, cheeky personality. Waters does not, however, do anything else to impersonate Lennon, either in behavior or looks; there aren’t even the trademark round spectacles. While Waters’s spoken bits capture enough of Lennon to make the late singer’s presence credible, his singing, which does not radically reinterpret the canon, sometimes has a metallic raspiness, although this could partly be the fault of Adam Burbury’s sound design. Waters’s diction in certain songs is less precise than Lennon’s, and too many songs are just reaching their apex when the singer suddenly stops and launches into his next narrative interjection.
At this point, no playlist of Lennon songs will hold surprises, so you can expect to hear the standard repertoire, ranging from “A Day in the Life” to “Working Class Hero.” As you can imagine, the show concludes with “Imagine.” You’ll also hear four gun shots at the show’s beginning and conclusion, as if we needed to be reminded.
D’Arrietta supplies as many of the all-important background harmonies as possible to replicate something like the sound of the original recordings, and sings solo at several junctures. His piano playing, while impressive, tends at times to thump too heavily, which works better for the more raucous numbers than for the mellower ones.
If you know anything about John Lennon, you will not find anything revelatory here. The man has been so written about or described and depicted in movies, documentaries, and shows, that only younger audiences are likely to find the show educational. Still, we pay homage to the man, mostly because of the incredible songbook he left behind, but also because of the free-spirited way he lived his life, and, to a degree, because of the unfading aura of martyrdom surrounding him following his shooting 34 years ago. Just as those of us of a certain generation know where we were when J.F.K. was shot, so do many of us remember where we were when Lennon was slain by Mark David Chapman. I was at the Cherry Lane Theatre to see Album, a play about the music business, of all things, starring an upcoming young actor named Kevin Bacon. The cast announced the tragedy and devoted the performance to him.
The awesome musical legacy John Lennon left behind continues to blow our minds, and hearing one song after the other, with barely a frill to distract us from them, reminds us with almost unbearable poignancy of what a loss his early death meant. Lennon: Through a Glass Onion may not be the best show possible to commemorate his music, but hearing these songs again, even in this context, will not leave you unmoved.
Lennon: Through a Glass Onion
Union Square Theatre
100 E. 17th Street
Through February 22, 2015
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 26 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his writing, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).