The Beatles fanbase is still a powerful springboard from which to launch a new show. But as New York choreographer, Mark Morris says of Pepperland: “If you are going for a tribute show with a cover band playing Beatles hits that you can sing along with – that’s not going to happen”.
Morris was commissioned by the City of Liverpool to create Pepperland as a homage to The Beatles’ ground-breaking 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. The piece premiered in 2017 as part of Liverpool’s Sgt. Pepper at 50 Festival and is now touring the UK until May.
So, if it is not dance choreographed to the album, what is it about? Well, while it captures the psychedelic mood of the album, the music is an original score by composer Ethan Iverson which is inspired by rather than a cover of the album.
The show opens with an arrangement of Sgt. Pepper, in which baritone, Clinton Curtis introduces some of the personalities from the LP cover. Dancers mimic Shirley Temple, Marlene Dietrcih, Oscar Wilde and Laurel and Hardy. And when we get to The Beatles, there is screaming hysteria.
Morris weaves humour through the piece, which is part nostalgia and part futuristic dream. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ is all bounce and playfulness. ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ goes from high camp to a chained can-can to an out-of-sequence kid’s party game gone wrong, as dancers each perform a different routine out of time with the music.
‘With You Without You’ has a more meditative feel. While ‘Penny Lane’, which was not on Sgt Pepper but was originally planned to be, sees the dancers act out the characters in a joyous narrative, inducing the same elated spirit much of The Beatles music still invokes.
All the tracks aren’t there. Most notably there is no ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. This is Beatles music, but not as we know it. And when something is so familiar it takes a while to accustom to it sounding different.
That said, the live band is terrific, and Curtis’ rich vocals give the lyrics a fresh clarity. Iverson also uses the haunting sound of a theremin in ‘A Day in the Life’ to give a trippy electronic feel. This, combined with the spinning of the athletic dance is at times literally dizzying.
It all plays out in front of a sparkling foil mountain range and a vibrant background that shifts from emerald green to electric blue, fuchsia pink, and jaffa orange. Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costumes use the same neon palette of The Beatles’ original album cover, creating an explosion of colour on stage. No wonder so many of the cast are wearing shades. It’s bright, sunny and deceptively skilful. A fitting homage to Liverpool’s Fab Four.★ ★ ★ ★
Pepperland is at The Lowry on 29 and 30 March 2019 and touring the UK til May 2019. Visit website for full tour details.
Read our interview with choreographer Mark Morris.