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Help! Beatles tribute 'Let It Be' is a hard day’s night

It’s the sixth or seventh time that the mop-topped bass guitarist who does not call himself Paul McCartney brings his hand and his guitar together, gesturing to the audience to clap along, that the desperation of the Beatles tribute show Let It Be becomes transparent. It’s not a bad show, really—the musicianship on stage is excellent, and there are worse ways to spend an evening than listening to live performances of Fab Four classics—but it’s also not an especially good one. No one expects drama or storytelling from a show like this, but we do demand some excitement. When the cast of a tribute-show concert must repeatedly exhort its audience members to enjoy themselves, something is amiss.

Let It Be is the second Beatles tribute show to arrive on Broadway in three seasons, and it opened last week as a summertime fill-in at the St. James Theatre. Billed on the front of its Playbill as “a celebration of the music of the Beatles” and carefully caveated inside as “not endorsed by the Apple Corps Limited or the Beatles,” Let It Be is instead currently enveloped in a legal dispute with the producers of the previous, similar show, Rain, which came to the Neil Simon in late 2010. The obvious joke is to wonder how one group copying the Beatles can accuse another of copying its copying. To read coverage of the lawsuit is to see precisely how: have the old cast train the new one, get the old production’s song list and blocking, then decide just before the new show is to open that the old production will get a smaller percentage of the gate than initially agreed.

I am no lawyer, but from a theatergoer’s perspective, there’s little for the old show to worry about. They’re nearly identical, of course, as they had to be. But Rain—the show was derived from a long-touring tribute band that took as its name the title of the great B-side to “Paperback Writer”—had a natural, unforced energy to it, a happy giddiness among its performers that spilled over to the audience, who all danced, clapped and sang along without any prodding at all. They were helped, no doubt, by a splashier production than Let It Be has to offer: there were, as I recall, more sets, more costume changes, more wigs, plus live videos of the audience that turned us all into simulacra of shrieking Shea Stadium teens. Rain could, against your better judgment, steal your heart; determined, imploring Let It Be will not.

But, then, that’s irrelevant to the producers and their lawsuits: love can’t buy them money.