When you die at age 21 you leave a lot of questions still drying on the clothesline. That’s what happened to Stuart Sutcliffe, the “fifth Beatle” whose love affair with Astrid Kirchherr is at the core of “Backbeat,” a play with music that’s onstage through March 1 at the Ahmanson Theatre.
Adapted for the theater by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, and based on Softley’s 1994 film of the same name, “Backbeat” recounts the formative years of the Fab Four when they were the (almost) Fab Five. Set between 1960 and 1963, most of the story takes place in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn (or red light district), where the young men traveled to hone their skills as a band.
Surprisingly, two things that you’d think would matter a great deal do not really matter very much: The actors/musicians don’t closely resemble The Beatles in appearance, and the music they play (and this is true on the original cast album as well) isn’t exactly a spot-on recreation of the songs as we’ve come to know them. This would be disastrous for a Beatles tribute band, where note-for-note playing and vocal accuracy is paramount, but here it’s not important because we’ve already bought into the notion that this is The Beatles before they became “The Beatles” and so are still in the process of finding themselves – their style, their look, their confidence, their sound, and of course their own compositions.
The other “fifth Beatle” who traveled to Hamburg was Pete Best, and he was replaced (at the request of George Martin) by Ringo Starr in 1962. This is in theory a poignant moment in the show, but Best (played by Oliver Bennett) hasn’t really been fleshed out for us, nor for that matter have John Lennon (Andrew Knott), Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy), and George Harrison (Daniel Westwick).
That’s partly because “Backbeat” can’t stretch itself thin enough to cover all of the personalities and at the same time keep the music flowing. So it centers, instead, on the would-be bassist and budding artist, Sutcliffe (Nick Blood), and on Kirchherr (Leanne Best), his German photographer girlfriend. What we know is that Sutcliffe and Lennon were friends from way back and had roomed together in art school. Lennon wanted him in the group even though Sutcliffe’s proficiency on bass guitar was nil. His allure, it seems, had much to do with his cool, James Dean persona, and the actor playing him has the good looks of James Franco. What Sutcliffe would have contributed to The Beatles as a musician – songwriter, singer, etc – is not quite an issue because he’d already left the band to be with Astrid and to pursue a career in art.
For the real Astrid Kirchherr, of course, her fiancé’s death left her with an eternal “what if?” She was perhaps the first photographer to do an extensive photo shoot with The Beatles, and it is very much a wistful moment when her actual photos are projected against the backdrop. If you grew up with The Beatles you’ll be touched.
The evolution of the band is easily depicted through the songs, starting with covers like “Johnny B. Goode” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” and progressing to “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I want to Hold Your Hand.” In this show, whenever the group plays, the bandstand rolls forward and then retreats afterwards so the story can continue. The clubs in Hamburg where The Beatles played were dark and smoky and the music was loud. And that will be part of our experience, too, so be prepared.
These so-called jukebox musical vary widely in their ability to sustain our interest. Although you’d expect it to be the other way around, “Jersey Boys,” which highlighted the lives and the music of The Four Seasons, is a much better show because it grips the audience with its narrative. “Backbeat” isn’t bad, but ultimately it doesn’t come together. Perhaps the co-writers realized this, for at the end there’s a mini-concert of breakout Beatle tunes that intends to put us in a feel-good mood before sending us home. It does work to an extent, but it also feels a bit manipulative as if there wasn’t quite enough story and so now we’re going to fall back on the songs themselves. If that’s what the audience wants, they can always find their way to the original recordings – and, truly, there’s still nothing better than that.
Backbeat is onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. There’s a 2 p.m. performance today (Feb. 14) and Thursday, Feb. 21, but no 6:30 p.m. shows on Sunday, Feb. 17 or Feb. 24. Tickets, $20 to $110. Call (213) 628-2772 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org.