If a medical dictionary of the theater should ever appear, one entry would be a grotesque disease known as O'Horganitis. Its chief aspect is the metastasis of spectacle over substance. Its subsymptoms are bloat, inanity, hallucination, sexual kinkiness and contagious vulgarity. The disease reached plague proportions in the late '60s, but sporadic outbreaks still occur; and if one wishes to be mortally infected, the place to go is Manhattan's Beacon Theater where Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road is on germy display.
Exploitation is at the core of this show. The idea was to cash in on the popularity of the Beatles. Their songs are probably as original and innocently evocative of the flower-child world of the '60s as they ever were, but here they are trampled under the dreck of Tom O'Horgan's grimagination. Just to offer one example, his notion of enhancing a song like When I'm Sixty-Four is to have two doddering floor-to-ceiling puppets paw lewdly at each other. As for plot, he tells a fragmentary tale of a Candide-like rock singer, Billy Shears (Ted Neely), who meets and marries Strawberry Fields (Kay Cole) - the characters are christened from Beatles songs. But Billy loses her to death and his own integrity to Maxwell's Silver Hammermen, Jack (Allan Nicholls), Sledge (William Perry), and Claw (B.G. Gibson). They are dressed in something resembling chain mail and apparently represent the Hell's Angels of the commercial music business. Billy's true bete noire is an extremely comely black temptress named Lucy. She is played by Alaina Reed, who is a richly dramatic alto and could qualify for a leading role in some other musical after Sgt. Pepper stops malingering on the road across the country.
For the rest, O'Horgan simply grubs around in the museum of Halloweens Past and bemuses the audience with such papier-mache wonders as a huge walking dental plate. The faggy odor of the show may be sniffed at its gamiest in a Beef Trust chorus-girl number featuring women padded out with lardy stomachs and grossly enlarged behinds.
Sociologically, Sgt. Pepper proves that the infantile youth cult of the '60s, the drug scene and all the militant minirevolutions are now a series of receding bad dreams. It takes a decadent nightmare of a show like this even to conjure up their ghosts.
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