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Theater Review: The Beatles’ Youthful Genius at Northern Stage

  • Tommy Crawford, left, plays Paul McCartney and Christopher Sears is John Lennon in Northern Stage's world premiere production of Only Yesterday at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction. (Rob Strong photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Friday, February 09, 2018

For weeks, The Carpenters’ 1975 hit Only Yesterday wormed its way through the soft-tissue iPod in my brain every time I encountered a reference to Northern Stage’s production of a play of the same title.

Then last Sunday at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, I watched Christopher Sears and Tommy Crawford channel the young John Lennon and Paul McCartney, respectively, in Norwich playwright Bob Stevens’ re-imagining of a crucial moment in the evolution of The Beatles. Now Only Yesterday conjures for me such Fab Four standards as Hard Day’s Night, I Saw Her Standing There and Let it Be.

And to my delight, the performance triggered this transformation without a trace of wistfulness for a “simpler” time. Only Yesterday is an entertaining, sympathetic, but unsentimental, look back at a pair of genius artists finding their way.

The play is set entirely in a Florida hotel room where Hurricane Dora stranded the then 23-year-old Lennon and 21-year-old McCartney for a night in September 1964.

Neither Sears nor Crawford sings a note of any of the Beatles songs now stuck in my head. Thanks in part to the fact that it would cost a theater company a fortune to license works from The Beatles’ canon, Stevens teases the audience instead, first with Lennon reciting a few lines from I Call Your Name, one of the first Lennon/McCartney-penned songs during a period when the band was covering works of other artists. With Sears subtly mixing disgust, disbelief and relief, Lennon realizes that he’d written this song of longing not for his then-wife, Cynthia, but for his mother, Julia, who died when John was 17.

In a subsequent scene — the play flashes through eight of them in 70 minutes — that finds the duo scratching for original material for their next album, Lennon proposes the opening notes and lyrics from two in-utero songs. The first, I’m A Loser, elicits frowns and skepticism from Crawford’s hit-obsessed McCartney.

Then Sears’ Lennon pulls a crumpled scrap of paper from a back pocket and starts reading, in monotone: Help.

I need somebody.

Help.

Not just anybody.

Help.

Which is pretty much what the characters do for each other throughout and especially in the homestretch of the play, which Stevens built around a recollection that McCartney shared with Fresh Air host Terry Gross on National Public Radio during a 2001 interview.

During a conversation for the audience before Sunday’s show, Stevens, a longtime TV screenwriter/producer (Night Court, The Wonder Years, Malcolm in the Middle, Murphy Brown) who moved to Norwich in 2006, and Northern Stage artistic director Carol Dunne, who also is directing this production, described the play’s long gestation period, including early incarnations that they tried out in staged readings at the company’s New Works Now festival.

What started with just the two budding musicians volleying one-liners at each other with spin and spite and spirit, now includes a road manager and a 13-year-old fangirl who meets her heartthrobs by crawling through and then becoming stuck in a vent to their room. Native Liverpudlian Christopher Flockton, now a Pomfret resident, plays the former with deadpan wit, while Tunbridge resident and Sharon Academy freshman Olivia Swayze, as Key West native Shirley Knapp, diverts the lads from their boredom and their demons with a keen intelligence and verbal nimbleness that belie the stereotype of the shrieking worshipper.

The performers lead us through this timeless moment with clever and appropriate but never distracting touches from the production crew. Lighting designer Dan Kotlowitz and lighting assistant Robert Cueva seamlessly break up the scenes with blackouts right when both characters are at a loss for words, while sound designer Ben Montmagny weaves in fusillades of thunder, howling wind and screaming teenagers.

Set designer Michael Ganio accents the early-1960s decor of the hotel room with period touches, such as a copy of TV Guide from that September week, featuring a caricature of Lucille Ball on the cover. Costume designer Allison Crutchfield completes the atmospherics by draping the two leads in slim-fitting black suits, white shirts, skinny ties and mod black boots.

Neither Sears nor Crawford, both Americans, tries to maintain the main characters’ Liverpool accents, at least with spoken lines — though Sears, who captures the pendulum swings between Lennon’s mischievousness and melancholy, sounds most like John while covering songs by the artists he admires, among them Chuck Berry.

Oh, and for parents who are pretty sure that their pre-adolescent kids don’t know curse words yet, be aware that the lads’ accents don’t quite camouflage the f-bombs that Stevens sprinkles throughout the dialogue. At the same time, these salty exchanges reveal one of the many strengths of the play: Far from a nostalgia fest, Only Yesterday makes clear that Lennon and McCartney’s wonder years were far from innocent.

“I wish I was grown up,” Shirley Knapp laments to John at one point.

“Don’t be in a rush, luv,” John replies.

Northern Stage continues its production of Only Yesterday at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction through Feb. 18, including performances at 7:30 tonight and 5 on Sunday afternoon. To reserve seats ($13.75 to $57.75) and learn more, visit northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.