By JOHN DeMERS
I was lucky enough to see the Beatles perform live twice – at City Park Stadium in my hometown of New Orleans on Sept. 16, 1964, and at Suffolk Downs in my father’s hometown of Boston on Aug. 18, 1966. The fact that these two concerts came from their first U.S. tour and their last was never lost upon me. So much had changed in the world during those two short years; and when it comes to music, most of what had changed was because of the Beatles.
Now, thanks to the Broadway touring company of Rain (with only two more shows today at Houston’s Hobby Center), I might actually consider saying I saw the Beatles perform live three times. And, in all seriousness, the Boys have never sounded better.
At heart, the show is a two-plus-hour concert by a Beatles tribute band – and, yes, I know, there are a lot of those. I caught one called Revolution on a cruise ship once, and it was scary how much its “John Lennon” looked the part even in the bar after the show. Houston’s own Fab Five plays some amazing Beatles music, though I do hate it when they play other people’s stuff from the ‘60s around the edges. Impressed as these listening experiences invariably leave me (I was in a band as a teenager and tried to play Beatles music the minute it hit the radio), it must be broadly doable to lots of musicians.
Rain brings two things to the Hobby Center that most tribute concerts don’t or can’t. For one thing, the four guys playing the Beatles – Steve Landes as Lennon, Joey Curatolo as Paul, Joe Bithorn as George and Ralph Castelli as Ringo – work harder at their characterizations than the norm. It is a Broadway show, after all. Most tribute bands do something to act or sound like their “characters,” but these guys take the acting seriously. The show’s program makes it sound like they’ve been at this since the ‘80s or even the ‘70s, so they’ve got each role down to nuances by now.
Secondly, the show features Broadway-style production values: evocative lighting and terrific costumes from all major phases of the Beatles’ career (including that rarely seen quasi-military get-up from the Shea Stadium concert in 1965), plus an eye-popping series of time-capsule montages of silly TV commercials, newsreels from historical events, and a colorful nod to mind-altering drugs. No part of this is more impressive than the scratchy, black-and-white, and thoroughly iconic newsreels of the Beatles themselves, but with the actors you see onstage inserted somehow into the frames. John, Paul, George and Ringo – say hello to Forrest Gump!
As Rain began to near its end, after a delightful jam session the Beatles themselves never did publicly (“We Can Work It Out,” “In My Life,” “Girl,” “Mother Nature’s Son” and a wild hoedown-ification of “I’ve Just Seen a Face”), I found myself thinking about what isn’t here – and probably should never be here. Though the faux-Boys do seem to grow a bit older through the show, they never grow any older than the day each song was created. Marriages and divorces are left out, not to mention an extremely bitter breakup during which each Beatle recorded separately and left it to the studio to paste things together. Most of all, there is absolutely no reference to the cancer that took George from us, or the late-night bullets outside the Dakota that silenced the seemingly unsilenceable John. There is certainly no mention of the fact that these two guys are dead.
Looking around me, past two of my own daughters, to all the people of several generations bouncing where they stood at their seats and singing the ”Na-na-na” to “Hey Jude,” I understood suddenly what Rain really is. It’s a chance for us to grab hold of human history, including our own lives, and rewrite it all with a happy ending.