By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Something funny, sad but a little bit wonderful happens between audience and players in Rain: The Beatles Experience, the musical tribute show winding up a nearly sold-out run at the Music Hall at Fair Park. Not for a second do the four singer-musicians portraying the John, Paul, George and Ringo of the 1960s ever look like the originals. They're too old, for a start. A couple of Rain's stars have been touring together since the early 1980s, putting them near or over 50. When they're decked out in the cigarette pants and winkle-picker boots for the opening The Ed Sullivan Show sequence—a flashback to February 1964 when the Beatles were in their early 20s—the huge close-ups of the Rain guys on the stage-side video screens reveal fleshy jowls, droopy chins and thickened waistlines. This Flab Four looks more like the paunchy Osmonds of today than the whippet-slim Moptops of yesteryear.
More important is whether they sing and play anything like the Fab Four. They do sound closer than they look. Joey Curatolo approximates Paul McCartney's flat Liverpudlian accent, and he hits the high "woos" on "I Saw Her Standing There." He's a keen guitar player too, even though he's holding a right-handed instrument (Paul's a leftie). Ralph Castelli bobs his head as he drums with Ringo's trademark precision moves, and he gets the right nasally, slightly off-key tone singing "With a Little Help from My Friends." With the other two—Steve Landes as John and Joe Bithorn as George in most performances, with others subbing at matinees—it's strictly make-believe.
Donning various wigs, mustaches and Nehru coats as they evolve into Sgt. Pepper land and then embark on the Magical Mystery Tour, the Rain band daytrips through 26 of the group's hits, from "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" to "Let It Be." They may be faking the English vowels, but they play and sing live, with only a little boost from recorded musical effects now and then.
As big jukebox shows go, Rain benefits from a sold lineup of familiar tunes and the built-in nostalgia factor. This is the music of our lives—if you're old enough to remember Sputnik and Maypo—and hearing it, even performed by a Fab Faux, can bring back some of the tender blush of youth.
If only Rain's arrangements weren't so sluggish and the performers captured more of the Beatles' madcap comic sparkle. On those early Sullivan shows (now stored for posterity on YouTube), the boys exuded a sexy-funny-flirty vibe that came right through the camera lens. That's what made the little girls scream, not John, Paul and George's perfect three-part harmony on "This Boy." It was lightning in a bottle.
The Rain guys don't have that special "it," but here's the weird and wondrous part: The audience accepts that they're seeing less-than-perfect facsimiles, and they love them anyway. By the third or fourth song, people sing along (at the band's urging) at the top of their lungs. "You guys rock!" yelled a guy in Row Q at the Sunday matinee. "Dallas rocks!" answered fake Paul.
A few times, again at the band's prompting, the ladies in the near-capacity crowd let out with the shrieks, just like they probably did in front of their black-and-white TVs when Sullivan introduced the Beatles as "fine youngsters." Now both the audience and the band onstage are oldsters. But it doesn't matter. Or hardly matters. Instead of rocking out, these Beatle-less fans rock back into the cushy seats at the Music Hall and are a little hesitant when "Paul" tells everyone to jump up and dance on "Twist and Shout." Yeah, yeah, yeah, it just takes a little effort to get the hips in gear.
There were middle-aged women in tears at Rain, some heaving the same sloppy sobs you see those teenage girls racked with on the old Ed Sullivan footage. Maybe they cry at the music—the simple miracle that is "Yesterday," nicely sung by Curatolo, still packs powerful juju—or maybe it's a blubbery reaction to the memory of how they felt when they first heard the songs way back then. Actors often talk about muscle memory. Beatles music, played this closely to the real thing, stirs something deep inside.
At the end of Rain, the band does an extended "Hey Jude." When they get to the "na-na-na," the video cameras turn to the audience. At the Sunday matinee, the screen showed lots of arms in the air, all waving in rhythm over gray heads. And get this: There were canes waving too. Canes.
The music of "Hey Jude" swelled, and the singing got louder. "Take a sad song and make it better," everyone sang. Up on that stage were four guys playing chords that somehow could make time disappear. And up on the screens, in shots of the crowd, every face looked really, really happy.
Sometimes I wonder why theaters choose plays that dwell on the ugliest aspects of humanity. Don't we go to the theater to escape? And then I see something such as Freakshow, the new production at the Bath House by Core Performance Manufactory, and I am convinced that companies do these scripts to test the patience of both audience and actors.