"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road," which opened last night at the Beacon Theater on upper Broadway, is based on a record, the Beatles' 1967 hit "sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Tom O'Horgan as director and as co-conceiver and co-adapter with Robin Wagner, has taken the record "on the road," and has tried to turn it into a psychedelic fantasy, something like a live-action "Yellow Submarine" - but lacking that movie's humor and style. This trip seems to be mostly through Mr. O'Horgan's attic.
There are echoes of all of his other shows. For example at the first act curtain, the actors duck behind a long pink sheet, not as in "Hair" to shuck their clothes but to skim candy-colored sponge Frisbees at the audience.
In the case of "Jesus Christ Superstar" similarly a journey from disc to stage epic - Mr. O'Horgan had a story, the Greatest Story. Here, having no plot, he invents one, superimposing it on the unintegrated score. Seventeen non-Sgt. Pepper, Paul McCartney - John Lennon songs are added to the twelve originals. The story as in brian de Palma's movie, "Phantom of the Paradise," is about a musician "who sells his soul to rock and roll."
The musician is Billy Shears. His lady is Strawberry, who comes out of the audience singing "Strawberry Fields Forever." Much of Billy's problem seems to be not with his friend or with the music business but with his glittering, silvery eyeglasses. At the end of the play, Sergeant Pepper, himself, emerges like a deus ex machina, and smashes Billy's glasses, presumably freeing him to a lifetime of gold records.
"Sgt. Pepper" is an excuse for Mr. O'Horgan to indulge his gift for elephantiasis. He fills the stage with towering puppets - a hand that walks, a wobbly octopus, a jar of French's mustard (how else could you sing "Mean Mister Mustard"?). Everything is oversize as if the director had raided the prop room of "The Incredible Shrinking Man."
For "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" out of a 20-foot Statue of Liberty (holding a banana instead of a torch) emerges a 12-foot Statue of Liberty and out of that emerges Lucy, a black Wonder Woman (later she reappears dressed as a pin cushion - don't sit down!)
Rita, the lovely meter-maid, becomes a man in a red wig, and "When I'm Sixty-Four" is sung while a pair of puppets paw each other. The director leaves very little to the audiences imagination.
Mr. O'Horgan and his aides (Robin Wagner, Jules Fisher, Randy Barcelo) are mechanical wizards, but at some point one must ask, what's new? Those puppets, the confetti from the rafters, the blinding blazes of light - we have seen them all before, except perhaps for Mr. O'Horgan's balloons. There are a dozen mammoth balloons, on which are projected barrages of images - butterflies, snowflakes, strawberries. The effect is evocative, but Peter Hall did something similar, with ping-pong balls in "Via Galactica".
for some, the visual and aural special effects may be enough, but what is submerges if the terrific Beatles' music. For example, Billy quietly begins singing the plaintive "A Day in the Life." Then we realize that he is sitting on what looks like a huge lower dental plate and on those balloons are projected photographs of Brezhnev and Javits and other newsmakers. Billy can scarcely get through one verse before smoke starts swirling and a leather-and-spike motorcycle gang, the Hammeroids, starts mobilizing once again.
Actually, most of the singers are good - Ted Neely as Billy, Allan Nicholls as one of a menacing trio, and particularly Alaina Reed as Lucy. But, for the singers and songs, it is an uphill struggle against an inflated production.
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