Liverpool is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (the most influential album ever made, according to the city’s publicity machine) with 13 commissions inspired by the album’s 13 tracks. The opening show, Mark Morris’s Pepperland, required funding for its performances – just four – from 13 institutions in the UK and US.
Morris is not the man to create a Beatles tribute show, choreographing 1960s dance routines to the original songs. Instead, he commissioned an hour-long score from Ethan Iverson, jazz musician and former musical director of Morris’s company. Iverson has re-orchestrated six songs (including Penny Lane, not on the Sgt Pepper album) and contributed musical interludes of his own. What he and Morris wanted was to recreate ‘the imagination, surprise, humour, and bizarrity’ of the original album, complete with its eclectic musical references.
The result sounds like the playing of an eccentric jazz cabaret band, fronted by an operatic baritone (Clinton Curtis). The music goes wonderfully woozy, thanks to a theremin, an electronic instrument controlled without touch by its player’s hands. Merry members of the first-night audience who hoped to clap along were soon confounded by multiple shifting rhythms: not so the dancers, whose lapses into apparent anarchy are meticulously choreographed.
The show starts with a colourful ensemble of 15 dancers parading to the title song. To the words ‘let me introduce you to…’ they come forward as notional characters from the album cover: Shirley Temple, Albert Einstein, Marlene Dietrich, Oscar Wilde, and finally the Fab Four. They revert to being themselves as the introductions lead to infatuated duets for assorted couples, hetero and same sex. Love at first sight is dizzying, swirling, joyous.
Tough love takes over for ‘When I’m Sixty Four’. A bouncy chorus line degenerates into dotty dotage, everyone following their own beat. A woman picks up her partner, slings him over her shoulder and marches off to the song’s refrain: ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me… be mine for evermore?’
Iverson sets up a mood-enhancing middle section with baroque keyboards for formal ensemble dances, split into trios and quartets. Then, as Curtis intones George Harrison’s philosophical musings for ‘Within You Without You’, a single performer is joined by all the others as ‘life flows on and we are all one’. The theremin (expertly played by Rob Schwimmer) now sounds like a swooning Indian instrument. After a lot of mesmerising pattern-making by the dancers, the performance begins to feel like one of those protracted parties where everyone present except yourself is stoned or intoxicated.
‘Penny Lane’ perks up for a parade and some cartwheels, before decelerating into yet more wooziness. ‘A Day in the Life’ is characterised by mimed gestures imitating those in the lyrics – reading a newspaper, hair combing, drinking a cup of tea – while a girl in yellow leggings is flown between two men. Every one, musicians and dancers, vocalises rhapsodically with a recorded choir to ‘I went into a dream’, summing up Morris’s evocation of Pepperland.
He has made his own comment on the album, recorded by the Beatles when he was ten and the rest of the cast hadn’t yet been born. It’s so ingenious as to be slightly tedious – a teasing overture to Liverpool’s festival, rather than a rousing fanfare.