“There are seven levels.” So says Paul McCartney anyway, upon discovering the true nature of reality the first time he smoked pot, which was with Bob Dylan. This and other fascinating, impromptu anecdotes make up the majority of johnpaulgeorgeringo, Dave Jay’s live action wiki of all things Beatle. And Paul is right – there are probably seven unique levels of enjoyment awaiting audiences in Jay’s magical mystery tour.
Level one – history. No other rock band can quite summon up feelings of weight and importance like the Beatles. No doubt, the legend of four working class blokes from Liverpool who, through pop and psychedelia, rocketed to the top of music charts is already a familiar one. But in his analysis, Jay takes great pleasure in scraping stories out of often-unrecalled nooks and crannies. That drummer Ringo Starr lived on canned beans while in India, for instance, or that the boys all had stripper girlfriends in Hamburg, Germany. More impressively, Jay’s interactive opus takes the form of a lively examination rather than a pedantic thesis. Real questions from audience members are required to prod “the band” into talking, so every yarn emerges genuinely from Jay’s comprehensive knowledge of Beatle trivia. The relaxed atmosphere the show creates is quite amazing, with theatergoers likely falling into two camps: those who simply forget that they’re not actually talking to the Beatles and those determined to trip Jay up in obscure minutia. Either way, it’s a blast.
The second level of enjoyment is performance – the sheer skill with which Jay executes artful dodges and mellow recollection. His precise characterizations of all four Beatles spring forth quite organically, even if Mr. Jay trends towards caricature. After all, history remembers these musicians as larger than life, so Jay doesn’t tarnish that image. He does well to work in broad, recognizable strokes; his George is quiet with a capital “Q” and his Paul is a high-pitched fruit loop.
Unsurprisingly, music is another pleasure here. During Q&A dry spells, Jay frequently grabs a guitar and plays. Some of the compositions are his originals, styled after Lennon and McCartney to good effect. This is a slippery slope, because there are probably some who would balk at the suggestion that Jay’s songs are of “Beatle quality.” But Jay covers his tracks, occasionally belting out quirky, but entertaining versions of Beatle material (Shhhh!). Standouts at the performance I attended were a version of “Yesterday” with “scrambled eggs” replacing the chorus and Ringo’s laughable attempt at “Maybe I’m Amazed.”
Those interested in more current gossip, ranging from Heather Mills to Lennon: The Musical will also find something to like in johnpaulgeorgeringo. Jay offers some nice reflections on how the band members and their legacies have been tainted over the years. If asked, Lennon will honestly confront allegations that he had a homosexual relationship with manager Brian Epstein or address his failures as a father. Sometimes, Jay’s decisive admissions were so blunt that audience members skeptically asked, “Really? Is that really true?”
It is also important to consider marketing when seeing a piece like this and its success; originating in last year’s Fringe Festival, johnpaulgeorgeringo is now making the rounds at comedy clubs (like Ha!) and Off-Broadway theaters. Jay and his co-creator Brad Calcaterra have successfully fashioned a low-maintenance event that is accessible to a wide audience. Everyone has at least marginal interest in the Beatles and their story. Predictably, each audience member at the performance I attended had at least one question – myself included. Perhaps the only disappointment in this respect was that this big, accessible audience wasn’t there. For a Saturday night at a midtown comedy club, it was shockingly unpopulated. (It seems even the Beatles aren’t immune to economic instability.) One wonders what a larger, rowdier audience might have coaxed out of Jay.
But I didn’t mind the intimate gathering, as it increased the profundity of casually hanging out with these iconic day-trippers. This is the sixth level I found appealing: the spiritual aspect of the show. For all its humble trappings – there are no tech or sound cues – the johnpaulgeorgeringo experience manages a complex simulacrum of closure. Even though you know it isn’t real, it is as if you can finally close the book on all those idle musings or dorm room arguments. “Wait, they’re not saying ‘I get high’ in ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand?’” Or, “see, I told you – Yoko did eat George’s cookies!” In this Dave Jay proves a high artist, because his glib portrayal of these all-too familiar stories feels definitive.
And there is the final layer to Jay’s performance – the recognizable, but unknowable allure we each found the first time we heard John Lennon’s voice treated with an echo effect or the crackle of guitar in “Revolution.” Jay has all but bottled “Beatle” in a digestible one-hour container. In the words of Sgt. Pepper, “sit back and let the evening go.”