In the decades since John Lennon’s death, writers, performers, and fans have struggled to untangle the legacy of the most enigmatic Beatle. The latest entry in that canon is Lennon: Through a Glass Onion, a spare two-man production playing at Off Broadway’s Union Square Theater. The stars, John R. Waters and Stewart D’Arrietta, freshly interpret Lennon as a tragic figure, but don’t stray too far from his original aesthetic. Thanks to this skillful treatment, Lennon soars in a way most Beatles reimaginations, like the 2006 Cirque du Soleil show Love or the 2007 film Across the Universe, do not.
Through a Glass Onion doesn’t bog itself down with attempts to mimic Lennon’s psychedelic grandiosity. In fact, that’s the show’s most striking dimension. There are no sets, and Anthony Barrett’s excellent light design is modest. Waters and D’Arrietta, who premiered the show 22 years ago in Sydney, Australia, want crowds to focus on them alone. They’ve got the gravity to make that work. The show explores Lennon’s life through 31 of his songs, re-sequencing them and mixing in first-person monologues to stitch together a surprisingly poignant narrative. As D’Arrietta plunks away at a piano and adds vocal harmonies, the 65-year-old Waters strums a guitar and belts out classics ranging from ”You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” to ”Working Class Hero.”
Through a Glass Onion shouldn’t work; no one imagines these songs, embodiments of youth and potential, coming from two grizzled, older men. But Waters doesn’t impersonate Lennon—he channels him. Although Waters’ singing voice is a dead ringer for Lennon’s, he finds new, mature angles from which to approach these songs. This is no saccharine retrospective, either, but takes hard looks at Lennon’s often misguided approaches to friendship, substance abuse, and fidelity.
This willingness to tinker with Lennon’s music and to explore his legacy in sometimes unsavory ways makes Through a Glass Onion shine. Narrative glue binds ”Julia” and ”Mother” (from 1968’s The Beatles and 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, respectively), and the pairing illuminates how Lennon’s tormented childhood influenced his approach to parenting later in life. Waters’ haggard voice shines on rougher Lennon cuts like ”I’m So Tired” and ”How Do You Sleep?”; because Lennon died at 40, he never maturely reinterpreted his songs as Paul McCartney has. If Lennon was still alive, he’d likely tackle ”Norwegian Wood” in much the same way as Waters and D’Arrieta: with subdued magnificence, and awareness of the trappings of society.
The weakest moments come in rote versions of early Beatles songs like ”Help,” but others achieve the joy and greatness of the originals. Modern-day Paul doesn’t sound as psychedelic as these guys do when they bust into the harmonies on ”Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” Lennon: Through a Glass Onion probably won’t sell you on Lennon if you aren’t already a fan. But it gets to the bottom of a rock ‘n’ roll great whose story has too often been obscured by decades-old caricatures. B+