Who were the Beatles before they were the Fab Four? Backbeat, playing at L.A. Ahmanson Theatre through March 1, answers that question with an energetic production that captures the then-five-piece band’s early talent and the raw emotion of its young members. Based on Iain Softley’s 1994 movie of the same title, Backbeat opened in Glasgow in February 2010, and has played in London and Toronto on a winding path toward Broadway.
The show takes place in 1960, when the Beatles were playing hits by artists like Little Richard and Smokey Robinson in the gritty red-light district of Hamburg, Germany. Ringo Starr had yet to join the group (Pete Best played drums) and a fifth ”lost Beatle” was on bass: Stu Sutcliffe (cool but vulnerable Nick Blood), a friend of John Lennon’s (Andrew Knott) from the Liverpool College of Art who found himself torn between music and his first artistic love, painting. Sutcliffe also falls for a young German woman, Astrid Kircherr (an alluring Leanne Best).
Blood and Best have true chemistry, whether pressed up against one another or separated by nearly the entire length of the stage. The blossoming passion is on view in a scene depicting Astrid photographing the boys in their first semi-professional shoot. As she locks her eyes with Stu, a large screen in the background displays Kirchherr’s real black-and-white photos.
But the script, by Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, makes Astrid rather repetitive in her repeated exhortations for him to choose his career path. Knott’s John is abrasive and obnoxious, though his racy wit and eagerness make him endearing. Knott has a big presence on stage — sometimes too big, overpowering the others’ more understated performances — but he and Blood play off each other perfectly the first time Stu picks up a bass. With John as his teacher, Stu struggles through a hilarious, faltering rendition of Chuck Berry’s ”Johnny B. Goode.”
John’s relationship with Stu takes center stage far more than his budding partnership with Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy, who makes up for not being left-handed with a clear, sweet voice on ”The Taste of Honey”). John comes off as the budding rock star and Paul the musician, but seeing them come together as songwriters is both touching and comical, especially when John helps Paul birth ”Love Me Do” (and naughtily transporting the ”pleeease” to the bedroom).
Backbeat is more of a play with songs than a traditional musical, alternating between scenes depicting a boisterous bunch of Liverpool boys basking in freedom away from home and quiet, moodier moments of personal drama that beautifully complement the loud, rowdy concert scenes. There’s nothing particularly new about a girl-meets-rocker-boy, guy-is-caught-between-best-friend-and-lover story, but Backbeat pulls on the heartstrings with just enough freshness and toe-tapping musicality. B