Review By: Gordon K. Smith
Okay, I’m seriously dating myself now, but I was watching, on February 9, 1964, along with 73 million others, when Ed Sullivan introduced those four youngsters from Liverpool who would rock the world in their first live American TV performance. Even from my viewpoint on Grandma’s carpet, watching her 1959 black-and-white, round-tube Philco, I knew I was watching history in the making. My mom and grandmother thought they were “shaggy but okay” — they saved their harsher comments for those “scroungy” Rolling Stones, who made their debut a short time later. But like all kids at the time, I knew they were a lot more than just “okay.”
That experience is recreated onstage joyously in “Rain: The Beatles Experience”, one of the best “juke box musicals” currently touring the country. But first a little back-story. The Beatles made a total of eight appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” throughout the ‘60s, but only the first was live from the Sullivan stage, the rest from tape or remote broadcasts. The art of Beatle imitation on a higher level than what you did in the back yard with the kitchen utensils started with the 1965 cartoon show, with the speaking voices of John, Paul, George and Ringo provided by people not them. This evolved into 1968’s YELLOW SUBMARINE, also with non-Beatles doing the speaking voices (although the initially skeptical Fab Four were persuaded to do a fadeout cameo for their “own” film). Some eight years after the band’s breakup in 1970, the Broadway tribute show “Beatlemania” was born. It resulted in a little-seen 1981 film version (rated “BOMB” in Leonard Maltin’s review books). From the various cast members of that show, four performers were drafted into a new tribute band, Rain, which has now been performing for 25 years (more than twice as long as the real lads did).
As its title says, “Rain”’s out to give you the complete Beatles experience, so its members (Steve Landes as John, Joey Curatolo as Paul, Joe Bithorn as George and Ralph Castelli grinning it up as Ringo, as he did in the BEATLEMANIA film) not only have the look down but do their own playing, and strive to give you a live, sight ‘n sound, note-for-note recreation of a real historical concert, with lights and multi-media screens complementing the feel with period footage (although they’re careful to never actually say that they are The Beatles, due to doubtless myriad legalities). The show encompasses the major stages in the band’s heyday – Sullivan, the Shea Stadium concert, the counterculture years – but takes the concept even further when it breaks midway during the first act. The multi-media takes over with some hilarious mid-’60s commercials while the guys do a costume-and-wig change; minutes later they emerge to the glorious opening chords of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, complete with their likenesses digitized into the classic album cover as a background graphic.
But since The Beatles played their final paying concert in 1966 San Francisco, everything from this point on in “Rain: The Beatles Experience” is a bit of theater of the surreal — you’re rockin’ to concerts the real lads never gave, performing hits from “Sgt. Pepper”, “The White Album” and “Abbey Road” as they would have been done live had the Fab kept touring. Since we know those songs by their studio mix versions, it’s both a bit disconcerting (so to speak) and exhilarating to see them done this way. While I initially thought this violated the show’s claim of all music performed live (no back up orchestra onstage), turns out that instrumentation is coming from Rain’s fifth member, superb keyboardist Mark Lewis, who stays largely out of sight and at times does the Billy Preston part. The media screens also sustain the nostalgia with recreations of scenes from YELLOW SUBMARINE, MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR and the early music videos that were another, often overlooked innovation of the boys (I especially liked their redo of the “Strawberry Fields” video).
One of the joys of the show is how it pauses in the second act to back up a few years with unplugged renditions of John’s ‘As My Guitar Gently Weeps” and some other quieter songs; Lennon’s “Imagine” is the only post-breakup song that makes the show, and that’s the one most Beatlemaniacs would pick of their solo efforts. Of course no show of a reasonable length could do justice to the entire Beatle songbook; I always loved “Help!” and was disappointed not to hear it (assuming the playlist stays the same each show). Likewise, the “Ed Sullivan” set opens with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, not “All My Loving”, the actual 2/9/64 opener, and omits “She Loves You”, which my companion was waiting to hear.
Celebrity impersonation shows don’t always work — witness the numerous actresses hired to play Marilyn Monroe who never come close to evoking her. When they do work, like RAY, like WALK THE LINE, like “Rain”, they provoke giddy flashbacks if you’re old enough, or something altogether new if you aren’t; it’s testament to the enduring legacy of The Beatles that the 20-somethings in the audience were enjoying it as much as us post-Baby Boomers were.