ORLANDO — Considering all of the ways to reflect back on the 1960s – the politics, the anti-war protests, the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement – it’s probably most often the cultural changes that seem to interest people, typically reflected in the music of that decade.
In some ways, that music seems to sum up the entire 1960s for many – and that comes home so clearly through the productions by Beatlemania Now, which strives to be a bit more than just a tribute show. While the four singers do an excellent job of capturing the look, sound and even mannerisms of John, Paul, George and Ringo, their performance is highlighted by the large video screen behind them that projects images from the 1960s. It takes only brief flashes of certain images – say, the cast of the television sit-coms “Bewitched” or “I Dream of Jeanie” – to realize that the true cultural innovations in that decade did not come from television or the movies, but from music, which tapped into the shifting attitudes of a younger generation shedding the values of their parents.
To get a feel for how far we’ve come, the Beatlemania Now show – which visited the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in Orlando on Saturday – opens with a video clip of a 1960s black and white television commercial for Camel’s cigarettes, noting that it’s the Number One brand that doctors smoke! “More doctors smoke Camels,” the announcer boasts. “See how Camels agree with your lungs.” As Bob Dylan once noted, the times they are a-changing.
The video clips then shift to Ed Sullivan, host of The Ed Sullivan Show, as he introduces the Beatles to American audiences on Feb. 9 1964 – and the rest, as they say, became history. Our four Beatlesmania Now performers come onto the stage and take us through a two-hour chronicle of the Beatles catalog, and while it certainly can be a fun nostalgic journey, it’s really more than that in a lot of ways.
Starting with the Beatles earliest hits, like “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “A Hard Day’s Night,” the four singers capture the innocent look of the Beatles in the beginning – nicely dressed, with conservatively short haircuts; they’re the picture perfect model of respectable, nice young chaps singing sweet love songs. But as Beatlemania Now points out, by the time 1967 arrived and the Beatles had created their landmark album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” all of that was starting to change. The lads were now dressing in decidedly more eccentric outfits, and the songs – “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day In The Life” in particular — were getting creatively experimental and psychedelic. Trippy, even.
The second act continues this trend, opening with their hits “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Yellow Submarine,” and now giving us four Beatles with long hair and hippie outfits. During a brief pause for a costume change, the video clips showed images from the 1967 “Summer of Love” when the hippie movement was in full bloom (followed by a performance of the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”) and then a second costume change pause, this one featuring video clips of anti-Vietnam war protests and violent clashes between students and the police, set to two of the 1960s classic rebellion anthems, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”; both videos perfectly capture the dramatically shifting landscape in the country. The Beatles return to stage and, not surprisingly, perform John Lennon’s “Revolution” as an American flag waves in the background.
Beatlemania Now works beautifully on a variety of levels – a nostalgia trip the those who were there, a chronicle of how music in the 1960s helped change a nation for those too young to know, and a reminder of how popular culture vividly illustrates the shifts going on all around us. The fact that our four performers do a superb Beatles imitation doesn’t hurt, either. And as Paul McCartney’s own appearance at the Amway Center last May, as the first stop on his Out There! Tour, showed, the Beatles music is absolutely timeless. Reopening their catalog, even for the first time for someone just discovering their music, is like discovering a treasure trove of remarkable artistic achievements.
Another local production that revisits the 1960s is “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do,” a musical that is now playing at the Winter Park Playhouse. Set in 1960 in a resort in the Catskills, the story of a rising young singer, Del Delmonico, and the women who fall for him is built around the songs of Neil Sedaka, who was not only a truly gifted songwriter but a popular singer in his own right. The play opens with Del performing the title song, one of Sedaka’s earliest hits (and one he would return to the charts with in the 1970s, via a newly recorded and very different version) – and that song perfectly captures the same feeling of youthful innocence that the Beatles’ early 1960s hits did, before the start of the Vietnam War torn the nation into two and unearthed a generation gap that would dramatically widen within just a few short years.
“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” doesn’t touch the politics of the 1960s, but instead puts the focus on the same ambition behind that irresistible Sedaka hit: the pursuit of love. While the story is slight, Sedaka proves to be an excellent choice for a songwriter to build a play around, because this is the true essence of great nostalgia: it takes you back, and oh what memories of being a teen and feeling like the world was yours to take on and conquer … if only you had that special someone to love.
Here, the Winter Park Playhouse does what it does best: find an excellent group of performers who excel at singing and comedy, and know how to have fun with a play like this one. Particularly good this time around are Frank Siano as Harvey Feldman, the resort’s resident comedian, and Lourelene Snedeker as Esther Simowitz, the owner of the resort, who is too worried about the $8,000 in repairs she needs to make to notice how much Harvey has fallen for her. It’s interesting that while many of Sedaka’s hits were about teenage romance, this play isn’t afraid to explore the romance between two much older characters.
“Breaking Up Is Hard To Do” is being performed at The Winter Park Playhouse now through Feb. 15 at the theater at 711-C Orange Ave. in Winter Park. Tickets are $28 for matinees, $35 for senior citizens evenings, and $308 evenings. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Feb. 2 and 9. Call 407-645-0145 for reservations.
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