For Better or Worse (Mostly Better), Style Beats Substance in Outstanding ‘Rain’

The moment of truth at Broadway/San Diego’s current Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles takes shape at the show’s tail end, specifically in the third of three encores. Paul leads some demographics research during “Hey Jude,” asking various gender and age groups to sing the “Naaa, na-na, naaa-na-na naaa” part — the 18-and-under voices immediately fade into the woodwork, their owners virtually absent under the crush of the old farts like me, who saw the historic Ed Sullivan installments in 1964 and welcomed the group in spirit to Shea Stadium the year after.

“Put down your iPhones!” Paul scolded the youngos. “Probably lookin’ up the words.”

It was a spectacularly cute moment in a show full of spectacularly cute moments. If you go, you will Posi. Tively. Flip over the execution. Rain (the name of the group as well as the tour) serves up Beatles fare like absolute madmen, charting about 35 installments of the music that for seven years helped fuel an American cultural upheaval until the group’s break-up in 1970. The 18-and-unders were of a decidedly different voice then, their blood-curdling paroxysms of joy dissolving in a conflagration of sorrow at the news.

From left, Ringo Starr (Ralph Castelli), Paul McCartney (Joey Curatolo), George Harrison (Joe Bithorn) and John Lennon (Steve Landes) can't imagine the firestorm that awaits them in the Beatles' early days.

From left, Ringo Starr (Ralph Castelli), Paul McCartney (Joey Curatolo), George Harrison (Joe Bithorn) and John Lennon (Steve Landes) can’t imagine the firestorm that awaits them in the Beatles’ early days. PHOTO BY RICHARD LOVRICH

Their bottomless delight and despair were sparked by something infinitely larger than themselves — and in fairness, this show makes only a nominal effort to tap that. Even so, the tunes are this piece’s driver; to that extent, Rain is an outstanding treatment of a musical watershed, one that at once embraces precious memories and stokes persistent curiosity.

“Long live the Beatles!” shouts Paul at the conclusion. Indeed they will, and for decades upon end.

Some of the show’s coolest values, in fact, are generated offstage. While the recorded music beds track the group’s American trajectory, you won’t hear a Beatles song among ’em. The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, The Beach Boys, The Grass Roots, Canned Heat, Buffalo Springfield and the like hold sway here, softening us up for the guests of honor. Millions and millions of fans/consumers knew that the Beatles alone did not a musical monarchy make; the treatment is a celebration of that diversity, and it works marvelously well.

The rearward graphics paint a similar image, loopy with funny Dristan and Dippity-Do spots and pictures of old pop-up toasters, lava lamps, record players and engineers hats abutting a sign marking The Cavern Club, the Liverpool venue the Beatles called home before trekking back and forth to Hamburg, Germany in the early 1960s.

The Beatles (from left, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison) won a Grammy Award in 1965. PUBLIC DOMAIN PHOTO

The Beatles (from left, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison) won a Grammy Award in 1965. PUBLIC DOMAIN PHOTO

Soon, the Beatles shaped and were shaped by the music world, and Rain reflects that here in all its wonderful faces. The British Invasion’s earliest days; the kaleidoscopic Sgt. Pepper era; Abbey Road and the group’s exit strategy: The costumes, lights and (considerable) volume feed off one another terrifically –- until the inevitable let-down, when leader John Lennon flatly announces that the group’s disbanding.

“We couldn’t play the game anymore,” Lennon lamented at a news conference whose tape is replayed here. “We couldn’t do it.”

That’s his only explanation for the loss of an entertainment and social enterprise the likes of which we haven’t seen before or since? There’s certainly infinitely more to the story than that — so what exactly (beyond patsy Yoko Ono) brought Goliath down in so colossal a heap?

Drugs? Booze? Money? Fame? Sex? The road?

All? Some? None?

You won’t glean any hints about that stuff from this show. Any more than you’ll be privy to the anecdotes that color the quartet’s humanness — like the fact that George Harrison (who played 26 instruments) met Paul McCartney as the two rode the same school bus in Liverpool. Or that Paul’s real first name is James and that he was once arrested on suspicion of arson. Or that Ringo Starr’s home was reportedly hit by stray Nazi bombs. Or that Lennon’s mother Julia was fatally struck by an off-duty cop’s car in 1958. Such dabs of color would arguably strike familiar chords, underscoring the boys’ flesh and blood.

But oh, my God, can these lads play. Four sheepish grins sit atop some of the best cover musicianship today, with nuance after nuance peppering icons like “Please Please Me,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “I’m Happy Just to Dance with You” and “I Feel Fine.” “Penny Lane” and “Come Together” never sounded so good; “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Let It Be” make exemplary counterpoint; and the audience itself explodes amid the delight of it all, twisting and shouting its way through a re-creation of musical history. You’ll know which Beatles Steve Landes, Joey Curatolo, Joe Bithorn and Ralph Castelli portray through their exuberance alone. (Mark Beyer is along for the ride on keyboards and percussion; check out his great solos and easy presence.)

Form left, Paul (Joey Curatolo), George (Joe Bithorn), John (Steve Landes) and Ringo (Ralph Castelli) go with the flow amid the Sgt. Pepper craze.

Form left, Paul (Joey Curatolo), George (Joe Bithorn), John (Steve Landes) and Ringo (Ralph Castelli) go with the flow amid the Sgt. Pepper craze. PHOTO BY RICHARD LOVRICH

Still, two Beatles are dead, and their departures spark a harmless internal debate on the quartet’s best performer after 1970. For me, out of question, it was George Harrison. George wasn’t the masterful showman Lennon was, but he had none of John’s tendency to milk melodies, and he certainly didn’t reflect McCartney’s rowdiness. Ringo turned out a few decent solo pieces (“It Don’t Come Easy,” the excellent “Photograph”), but his post-Beatles time off made it tougher for him to catch up to a waiting world.

One of the many great things about this piece is that, if you’re old enough, you’ll probably speculate on exactly those things. We’re 46 years out from the Beatles, and that’s more than enough time for the legend to take on a life of its own and for the individual musicians to do likewise. Meanwhile, we may not get much here on the phenomenon the Beatles were and are, but the production values speak for themselves. As far as it goes, Rain is an absolute delight for all ages. Your iPhone might help you with the lyrics to “Hey Jude,” but it doesn’t stand two chances in hell against the real thing. Enjoy!

This review is based on the production of March 30. Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles runs through April 3 at the Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave. downtown. $30-$90., 619-570-1100.


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Martin Jones Westlin

Martin Jones Westlin, principal at editorial consultancy Words Are Not Enough and La Jolla Village News editor emeritus, has been a theater critic and editor/writer for 25 of his 47 years... More...

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