Review: Backbeat (Mirvish)

Mirvish presents the Toronto premiere of Backbeat, a bio-play about the birth of The Beatles.

Like most people who grew up in the Western-world in the 20th century, I’m a fan of The Beatles. Backbeat, based on the 1994 movie of the same title, is billed as the story of the birth of the iconic band.

Mirvish has brought the cast of Backbeat directly from London to perform a run here in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre before the show transfers to Broadway next year.

The show takes place at the inception of The Beatles and spans the early years of their career between 1960 and 1963 when they were playing dive bars in Hamburg, Germany. The show features performances of some of the band’s earliest hits; Love Me Do, Twist and Shout, Long Tall Sally, and Money (That’s What I Want).

Back then, the Fab Four were the not-so-fab five. In addition to John Lennon (Andrew Knott), Paul McCarney (Daniel Healy) and George Harrison (Daniel Westwick), Ringo Starr’s predecessor, Pete Best (Oliver Bennett) was still the group’s drummer and John’s childhood friend, visual artist Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) was their bassist in these early days.

The cast members are immensely talented, not only do they sing and act, they also play their own instruments. Backbeat isn’t a musical per se, it’s a play with music; the dialogue is spoken instead of sung and all songs are performed in context.

Backbeat centers around the story of Stuart Sutcliffe and how his love affair with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Isabella Calthorpe) eventually led to his split from the group that would go on to be the most influential rock band of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t find the story of Stuart and Astrid all that compelling. I don’t think Stuart’s character is developed enough to be the sympathetic lead playwrights Iain Stoftley and Stephen Jeffreys intended him to be. Stuart and John’s relationship felt underdeveloped while Stuart and Astrid’s love story was the focus of much of the play and the rest of the Beatles were relegated to supporting roles.

I thought the script needed work. Stoftley and Jeffreys seemed overly concerned with preserving the historical accuracy of the events to the point where there was even a note in the programme detailing exactly where they took artistic liberties which strayed from historical events.

I think the play’s strict adherence to facts and its almost documentary style kept it from truly developing into a compelling drama. I found the narrative a bit plodding and thought several scenes could be trimmed and tightened.

I think the show struggled with its identity a bit. It felt like it was trying to be a drama and it’s definitely not a light, “feel good” show however, there is a Mamma Mia-style encore where the cast performs a short set of songs post-curtain call and encourages the audience to dance. The sudden shift in tone seemed awkward to me.

I didn’t find the songs integrated into the narrative in a particularly successful way. They were performed matter-of-factly; these were the songs the band was playing at the time in the clubs and that’s how they’re featured in the show. Backbeat is not the Beatles equivalent of Jersey Boys.

The most interesting parts of the show to me were the few parts where the narrative strayed away from Stuart and Astrid to focus on the Beatles themselves. The scene where Paul and John work together to write Love Me Do is sincere, funny and utterly charming and the band’s first recording session with producer George Martin felt like a weightier, more important moment than it ultimately was in the play.

My show-going companion for the evening, site founder Megan Mooney, mentioned she really enjoyed how the show portrays John, Paul and George as everyday young men, the human beings they were before they became icons later in their career.

The cast is really talented and the musical performances are enjoyable (be warned, they really crank up the volume) and if you were a fan of the original film or particularly enjoy the music of the early days of the Beatles you might enjoy Backbeat.

Details:

  • Backbeat is playing at the Royal Alexandra Theatre (260 King Street West) through September 2, 2012
  • Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 p.m.
  • Tickets $36.00 to $130.00
  • For more information visit Mirvish.com

Photo credit:

  • Photo of Andrew Knott and Daniel Healy by Nobby Clark

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