The jukebox musical genre takes on an international flair in the Glasgow Citizen Theatre’s production of "Backbeat." This unconventional showbiz tuner, set in Germany and England, offers a little-known back-story about the birth of the Beatles.
The show, which premiered in Glasgow before a London run, was adapted in 2010 by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys from a 1994 British-German film of the same name. Focusing more on drama than songs, it isn’t the nostalgic greatest-hits cavalcade that some viewers will expect, though there is a crowd-pleasing singalong segment following the curtain call.
The story focuses more on the character of an early, short-lived Beatle than on the eventual Fab Four who rocketed to legendary stardom. For those willing to view an atmospheric and instructive slice of pop-rock history, however, the musical has its rewards.
Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) is a promising abstract artist who briefly began a career as a novice musician when he joined the Beatles, but ultimately reverted to his original creative passion. Forming a close bond with John Lennon (Andrew Knott), the charismatic bass player Sutcliffe, sporting dark shades and an alluring seductive manner, is coaxed by his pal to partner with him and Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy), John Lennon (Andrew Knott), and Pete Best (Oliver Bennet) -- whose slot in the band eventually went to George Harrison (Daniel Westwick).
The group began their career performing in smoky dives and sex clubs. This play follows the guys between 1960-63, before Ringo Starr became the fifth Beatle. McCartney objects to Stuart’s limited prowess and personal style, and confronts Lennon about this. Yet, when the group begins to click, it seems the Beatles might have found their groove.
When romantic sparks start to fly between German photographer Astrid Kirchheer (Leanne Best) and Sutcliffe, he becomes less committed to the group, and his interest in art resurfaces. Resentments against him grow, as his longtime pal Lennon comes to his defense.
Sutcliffe projects the bad-boy magnetism to make Astrid’s adulation believable, though the writers stop short of making a case that Lennon’s near-obsessive interest in him was more than platonic. The book by Softley, Thomas and Ward gives the other Beatles too little to work with in imagining and creating full-bodied portraits of each.
This musical would benefit from more focused storytelling. The stories of the origins of a legendary rock-and-roll group and the volatile journey of restless free spirit Sutcliffe aren’t as smoothly woven as one might hope for.
The glitz and glamour found in most jukebox musicals is replaced here with the gritty depiction of smoky nightclubs, cheesy hotels and strip joints, which dominates the story, appropriately unaccompanied by pulsating rock sounds.
Original incidental music is supplied by music supervisor Paul Stacey, who oversaw the original Glasgow production. The milieu is superbly captured by Anthony D. Edwards’ production design (adapted from Christopher Oram’s original conception), the amazing lighting design by Howard Harrison and David Holmes, Richard Brooker’s sound, and marvelous projections by Timothy Bird, Nina Dunn and Knifedge.