Boston Rock Opera's splendid 'Sgt. Pepper's'

Boston Rock Opera’s splendid ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’
THE BOSTON GLOBE: November 3, 1995


Presented by Boston Rock Opera.
Words and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (“Within You, Without You” by George Harrison) Produced and directed by Eleanor Ramsay, music direction by Mick Maldonado, choreography by Jane Bulger. Starring Doug Thoms, Bill Goffrier and Susan Barnaby.ß At: The Lansdowne Street Playhouse, tonight and tomorrow and Nov. 8 through Nov. 11

By Jim Sullivan, Globe Staff

It was uh — 28 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. They’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to raise a smile. So, let me introduce to you: The Boston Rock Opera doing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album, in toto, at the Lansdowne Street Playhouse, this weekend and four nights next week.

The Beatles happen to be in style right now – just try to miss the ABeatlesC promos for the upcoming TV rock-doc / the “new” Lennon song / the outtakes CD releases. Thus, the Boston Rock Opera folks find themselves at the right place at the right time. The BRO is not a company to lack for ambition. They revamped “Jesus Christ Superstar,” mixing kitsch with poignancy, and staged the Kinks’ underappreciated, politically astute “Preservation Act 2.” Here, they are kicking up something that is neither kitschy nor political. “Sgt. Pepper” was the seminal progressive rock album of 1967, a semiconceptual record still considered one of rock’s finest. (And all done on a four-track!) It hit during the Summer of Love and was the confirmation of the Beatles’ move from mop-top to hippie, from pop star to artist.

But, of course, the Beatles were kaput as a touring unit by then. So you’ve only seen wretched things like the 1978 “Sgt. Pepper” movie starring the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton or “Beatlemania.” (Or, maybe, Paul “I was the real artist” McCartney serving up snippets during post-Beatles stadium tours.) You’ve never heard the whole thing done live, done theatrically, done up close.

You can now and should. This is a splendid, joyous production that will bring a smile to your face. It’s expertly choreographed and sharply played by the eight-piece band. The few glitches (some dead mikes) on Wednesday’s opening night were covered neatly, because even though this is a theatrical production, it’s also only rock ‘n’ roll.

Producer/director Eleanor Ramsay faced a couple of problems in putting together this show, which includes a cast of 13 and three dancers. As conceived, Sgt. Pepper is less a narrative than it is a series of set pieces and songs. And while there’s some drama – the young woman leaving her parents’ home, the deadly car crash at the end – there’s not a lot of conflict or tension. What there is, is a comfort zone of musical familiarity – these folks take no liberties with the music – and the twists Ramsay has worked out for the individual songs, weaving some together, letting others stand alone. This is pretty much the way we listen to concept albums anyway; if the songs don’t work on their own, they won’t as a whole.

Sgt. Pepper starts in carnival fashion with barker Doug Thoms setting the stage for Bill Goffrier (BRO’s resident smarmy lush) in the Ringo Starr role of Billy Shears on “With a Little Help From My Friends.” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is cast not as an acid dream, but, as Lennon always insisted, a child’s fantasy, with fourth grader Patrick Sean Goggin in a wheelchair, reading “Lucy,” administered to by fetching nurses. “Lucy” turns out to be the girl from “She’s Leaving Home” who’s meeting a man from the motor trade. (The “motor trade” phrase was Liverpool slang for an abortionist, but this does not factor in here.) “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is a carnival with everyone cavorting on stage and Thoms leading the parade: somersaults, hoops, dancing – very synchronous.

Then comes a (long) break and, well, Side 2. BRO captures the Indian mysticism of “Within You, Without You,” via Chris Mascara’s sitar and Michael Knoblach’s tabla, and Lynette Estes’ spiritual Krishna character. The dancers weave and hover, adding to the spell. But wait, no incense? “Lovely Rita,” as crooned by Randy Black, raises the only flag meter maids have ever had raised in their favor. Practically everyone is out to chirp “Good Morning, Good Morning” and then it’s on to the silly-into-somber “A Day in the Life.” The synth spirals at the end, and then the famous piano chord, parodied by the Rutles, a 22-second strike and then fadeaway.