Go see “Let It Be,” the latest in a long line of Broadway Beatles tributes, if for no other reason than the cardio workout. If you’re one of those theatergoers who appreciates being instructed when to stand, sit, wave your arms or just to sing along with songs you know, you’ll be plenty satisfied by the production that opened this week at the St. James Theatre.
I prefer to let the music move me -- not to be ordered “Can you give us a scream?” by a member of the faux-Fab Four -- but I was in the minority at a recent performance, where a range of enthusiastic admirers gathered to pay homage to Paul, John, George and Ringo in a retrospective that bears resemblance to the last Broadway Beatles tribute, “Rain,” which ran at the Neil Simon all of two summers ago. (Producers of the two shows are duking it out in a copyright infringement suit.)
Created as a West End production to mark the half-century anniversary of the band’s birth, “Let It Be” sets the mood before the curtain rises, with video screens designed as ’60s-era TV sets embedded in the curtain, broadcasting ads for cigarettes and Ovaltine, and asking trivia questions. Do you know which Beatle married first? It was John, in 1962.
The curtain rises on four familiar-looking Mop Tops and we’re whisked along on a familiar journey in chronological order, from the band’s early days playing The Cavern Club in Liverpool, to their New York visits, where they appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and sent fans swooning during that 1965 Shea Stadium concert. Each scene brings with it four or five familiar songs: “I Saw Her Standing There,” “She Loves You,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and so on. In all, there are solid covers of about 40 tracks.
Ten talented musicians rotate in and out of “Let It Be.” The performance I saw featured Graham Alexander on bass, piano and lead vocals, conjuring Paul McCartney; John Brosnan on guitar, as the George Harrison figure; Chris McBurney on drums, as Ringo; and Ryan Coath on guitar, lead vocals and piano, as John Lennon. My companion and I had fun debating whether Alexander’s hair might be real; the others were clearly wearing wigs.
Like the actual Paul McCartney, Alexander, a Philadelphia native and former “Rain” cast member, proves most charismatic, keeping his comments to a minimum and wowing with his sweet and uncomplicated vocals. Coath’s repeated efforts to engage the audience (“How are you feeling?” “Are you alright?” “Are you enjoying the show?” “Do you remember this one?”) were decidedly less engaging, though he gets a laugh introducing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and crediting Eric Clapton’s uncredited “White Album” solo: “Unfortunately, Eric couldn’t be here tonight ...”
The band is never referred to as The Beatles, nor are the guys ever mentioned by name, though it’s clear who each is meant to evoke. Ringo’s drum set just says “Let It Be,” in that familiar font. The only place you’ll see the word “The Beatles” is on the cover of the Playbill. Why all the hedging? Lawyers, we’d guess.
While the first act unfolds as a chronology, the second drops that conceit and turns into a simple concert, moving back in time with visits to “Rubber Soul” and so forth.
“Let It Be” is at its best when it relies least on the gimmicky costumes and disingenuous banter, and more on the really superb talents of its performers, like when three of the guys simply sit on stools to perform a wistful “Blackbird.” It made me wish “Let It Be” had dispensed with the costumes, video and fancy lighting altogether, and just showcased these artists in their street clothes doing Beatles covers.
Duncan McLean has fun with video design, managing to wrap the entire theater in a facsimile of Shea Stadium and dropping somewhat-cheesy video of strawberries along the walls of the St. James during ... you don’t need me to tell you when.
Slow summer nights on Broadway mean theaters full of jukebox musicals, concerts and solo comedy shows. “Let It Be” tries to conjure memories of the greatest rock and roll band of all time. There are the occasional moments when it succeeds, but they are too far and too few between.
“Let It Be,” at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., through Dec. 29. Tickets: $30-$135. Call 212-239-6200, or visit letitbebroadway.com.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn