I'm probably not the best audience for Lennon: Through a Glass Onion, the jukebox musical that opened this week at the Union Square Theatre, in New York. But the fault isn't with the show; it's with me, and it's strictly a case of having been marinated in Beatles music, lore, and literature for more than a half-century and having written a John Lennon bio, Nowhere Man, after transcribing and editing the personal diaries that Lennon kept from 1975 until his death in 1980. The problem is that I've heard it all before, and what I want from a show like this is to hear something new and unexpected.
John R. Waters, an Australian film and TV star, is not (thank God) a Lennon impersonator. Rather than wearing a wig and the trademark glasses, he portrays the ex-Beatle as he might have been had he lived and, at age 64 or so, decided to perform in intimate venues, singing his classic songs and explaining the inspiration behind them. Waters and Stewart D’Arrietta, whose piano playing is the musical driving force behind this stripped-down production, have been doing the show for 22 years, and, not surprisingly, they’ve got it down cold (turkey).
In this alternate Glass Onion reality, the AARP-ified Walrus—clad in a black leather jacket and black jeans, and enveloped in a mist that perhaps suggests the limbo between life and death—shares his thoughts on Mark David Chapman, his would-be assassin, suggesting that he must have listened to a lot of Beatles music, which, in fact, he did.
As Waters strums an acoustic guitar and D’Arrietta pounds on the piano (and occasionally harmonizes), the duo work their way through either snippets or complete renditions of more than 30 selections from the Lennon-solo and Lennon-McCartney songbooks, including such favorites as “A Day in the Life,” “Help,” “Imagine,” and “Watching the Wheels.”
Waters intersperses the music with wittily told stories and quips (mostly lifted from interviews, though sometimes made up) about Lennon’s rivalry with Paul McCartney, the bigger-than-Jesus blowup, his relationship with Yoko Ono, meditating with the Maharishi, the birth of his son Sean, and the so-called househusband years. And he indeed gives a good sense of what it might have been like to listen to Lennon. His performance demonstrates the absurdity of Ono’s contention that her third husband was so complex, no one actor could portray him—a notion she brought to life in the 2005 Broadway catastrophe Lennon, in which nine actors, both men and women, took turns playing Lennon and ultimately communicated no sense of who he was or what his life was like.
Just once, however, I’d like to see Lennon portrayed in a way that goes beyond retelling the most famous stories and does not totally buy into the bread-baking househusband myth. Show him in his final years as the tormented, secluded, confused, and jealous man that he was. Show him continuing his affair with May Pang after he went home to Yoko, and carrying a torch for May until the day he died. Show him as a contradictory man who longed to follow the path of Jesus but also dabbled in the occult, loved money, smoked a lot of weed, lost his muse, and then regained it after an epic creative struggle.
It would have been great to hear Waters sing some of the lesser-known Lennon songs that illuminate this reality, like “Serve Yourself,” complete with the spoken-word primal meltdown of “Youse fuckin’ kids all the fuckin’ same...” which was directed at his older son, Julian.
Apparently, though, this isn’t what most Lennon fans want. They want to hear the most famous songs, and judging by the audience reaction, Waters and D’Arrietta gave the people exactly what they wanted, straight up and with fresh energy.
Even so, it’s hard not to see Lennon: Through a Glass Onion as a poignantly sad reminder of what can never be again and what so many people, myself included, have tried so hard to keep alive throughout these ever more dispiriting times.