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"Rain" On Their Parade: Why the NY Times review of "Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles On Broadway" is All Wet

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In his hugely condescending review of the newly opened show, Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles on Broadway, ("Another Long and Winding Detour," Oct. 26, 2010) New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood--who, though he freely admits that he "can't claim to be an expert in the intricacies of [Beatles] music," was nevertheless given the assignment to be one--likens the experience of Rain to "enhanced Karaoke, like a collective night in front of a giant television, playing the new Beatles video game. . ."

Mr. Isherwood, formerly theatre critic for Variety, has proven himself a perceptive, if generally stingy critical voice on the theatre, but he likely knows even less about video games than he does about The Beatles' music. Despite the presence of side-stage video screens beaming era-specific footage, precisely what makes Rain such an exuberant, wistful, and engaging show is that it is decidedly not a mass-produced digital simulacrum of the Beatles recordings, nor a 2D cartoon depiction of their likenesses, but a carefully studied, deeply felt, ambitiously staged, and obviously reverently rehearsed live performance encompassing the entire breadth of the Beatles career; what amounts to the great popular classical music of our time.

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Unlike the Philharmonic, however, who can simply deliver a more or less correct, if nuanced interpretation of Mozart or Mahler's compositions, the members of Rain need to recreate far more than just the notes, sounds and structures of these pieces, indeed adopting, as best they can, the physical, visual and vocal signifiers that will translate the Beatles work and personalities in a total context--such is the multi-tiered appeal of pop music, at least since, well, The Beatles. At this the members of Rain, though varying in their resemblances to the twenty-something Liverpudlians they portray on stage under their mop-top wigs, succeed to a impressive degree.

Mr. Isherwood however, in preferring to use his coveted editorial pulpit for snarky, unfunny asides--"I invited a Beatles devotee to join me, but she reacted as if I'd asked her to come along to two weeks of jury duty"--casually damns Rain with faint, and mostly fudged, praise. The Rain band, serious craftsmen and talents who have mastered both the Beatles' music and onstage physics, is made up simply of "fine musicians" and "capable vocal impersonators." The show's Paul McCartney, Brooklyn-born Joey Curatolo, Mr. Isherwood admits, has a voice that is "admirably precise in its mimicry," but "wags his head ferociously" like a "McCartney bobble-head doll."

Did Mr. Isherwood, who must never have seen a film of the head-wagging early Beatles, miss Mr. Curatolo's engaging, effective banter with the crowd, or his deft and deeply musical bass playing, which virtually any musician can tell you is half the battle when performing Beatles material? What's more, Mr. Curatolo's voice is not merely "admirably precise"--it is quite gorgeous, actually, and thoroughly at home within the minute timbral variations of vintage McCartney. His look, speaking voice and mannerisms are likewise both totally on-point and appealing in themselves. It must be said: Mr. Curatolo carries the show brilliantly.

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When Mr. Curatolo, strumming an acoustic guitar, began to sing the opening phrases of "Yesterday," the underlying emotional impact of the world's most covered (and perhaps most overplayed) song was immediately palpable to everyone else in the Neil Simon Theatre, as if it were being performed--and more importantly heard--fresh and new. That Rain helped these, admittedly, largely middle-aged people reconnect to the rich emotional and joyful core of so much Beatles music--a quality sadly missed in the stance of much of the current musical generation--is hardly the stuff of what Isherwood snidely dismisses as a "boomer theme park ride," and it certainly has nothing to do with karaoke or video games.

What Rain create with their meticulous and often quite beautiful Beatles arrangements, and their balance of singing/acting and--for lack of a better phrase--simply rocking, is an invitation to shared cultural associations and triggered personal memories that nevertheless contribute mightily to the real lives of at least two generations--perhaps not real lives which took place within whichever temporal boundaries Mr. Isherwood judges to be acceptably cool (or, lacking that, at least kitschy cool) but real lives nonetheless. (It's worth noting that the Eighties arena-rock Broadway show, "Rock of Ages," earned a grade of "guilty pleasure" from the brittle Mr. Isherwood; the Eighties revival still evidently enjoying a free kitsch-appeal pass from the cultural gatekeepers.)

But just as unfortunate as his condescension to boomer-era culture and experience, is Mr. Isherwood's careless underestimation of the craft and artistry involved in performing Beatles music at the highest level. Ringo drummer Ralph Castelli, for instance, simply "thwacks away in the background, looking appropriately laid-back." Does Mr. Isherwood have even the first inkling of how much study, work and artfulness go into recreating the sound, technique and feel of Ringo Starr's idiosyncratic beats and fills? One might try asking a producer or drummer (if that's not beneath you); this is a multi-leveled science in itself. Still, Mr. Isherwood is quite comfortable telling the world blithely that Rain is utterly devoid of "authenticity." In fact, the musicians strove for, and generally attained, a stunning level of musical authenticity--the subtlest of bass guitar gestures in "Hello, Goodbye"; using towels to muffle the drums on 'Come Together"; finding the exact vocal distortion for "I Am the Walrus"; spreading the vocal harmonies perfectly, even on difficult vehicles like "This Boy."

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In every case--lead guitarist Joe Bithorn's incendiary take on the Eric Clapton solo from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" comes to mind, during which Mr. Isherwood was evidently only focused on Mr. Bithorn's costume mustache--the members of Rain approached their personas and their playing with equal seriousness and evident background. While Steve Landes' Lennon occasionally struck me as lacking some of John's overt toughness, he certainly sang with all of Lennon's throaty resonance and dipping articulations, and was equally at home on both keyboards and the Rickenbacker and Epiphone guitars that Lennon favored. Bithorn not only played George Harrison's guitar parts with knowing tone and phrasing, but he used an adroitly placed guitar synth on his otherwise stock instruments to contribute (along with keyboardist Mark Beyer) many of the later Beatles' harp, string and horn parts. Noone in the theatre, presumably, with the possible exception of this "expert on the intricacies of the music," likely noticed anything but how rich and complete each song sounded.

As Mr. Isherwood correctly points out, Rain, and all of its members, certainly owe a debt to the original Broadway Beatles show, Beatlemania, in which they all at some point participated. (The lovely Mr. Isherwood even mocks the band's bio blurbs from the show program.) For Mr. Isherwood, this should move us to "reflect grimly" on the idea of Beatlemania being accounted some kind of "aesthetic pioneer." And why such a grim prospect, exactly? Is there an occult value system in musical theatre salons that precludes the public performance--even the period recreation--of especially important and by all accounts unimpeachably great work, such as the Beatles catalog?

Perhaps Mr. Isherwood should take the Metropolitan Opera to task for their creepy, too literal retreads of those tired old-folks' favorites like Carmen, La Boheme, and Boris Gudonov. (Not that dusty old stuff again--boring!) Tough call: perhaps it does require life-long study and devotion to perform some of the world's greatest music at a high-level of artistry and consistency, and to stage it in a creative way that pays tribute to its original composers while keeping alive a tradition and a legacy of expression that transcends the tawdry vicissitudes of fashion and pop shelf life. Still . . . I'm no expert on these things.