"HELP," the new Beatles play at Seattle Children's Theatre, preserves the magic of the group's music without sweeping any of the group's problems under the rug.
Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who have never heard of The Beatles; thousands of them in the Seattle area alone. They’re your school-aged children and grandchildren. Fortunately for fans of the Fab Four, the Dutch theater company Theatergroep Max. has brought their music-loaded biographical play, HELP, to Seattle Children’s Theatre.
Take the next kid who replies, “What’s that?” when you inquire after their knowledge of the British Invasion. They’ll thank you later. And not years later — about a minute after the final curtain.
Seattle Children’s Theatre’s artistic director, Linda Hartzell, first saw the play in Amsterdam in 2009 and has been trying to bring it to town ever since. The transition to the Seattle stage required a translation of playwright Jan Veldman’s bright and brisk script into English and a language swap for the astonishingly talented all-Dutch cast. They not only manage an “accentless” West Coast American English, but a parodic posh British chirp, a low Liverpool twang, and a heavy German bray usually confined to jingoistic World War II movies.
Oh yeah, and they sing brilliantly while effortlessly accompanying each other on guitar, bass, and drums — with all the panache of a legit rock band.
Veldman selected a universally appealing point in The Beatles’ history to set his play, though for a children’s play, it’s a surprising choice. Rather than focus on the lads during their school days, he jumps at the classic cusp of greatness origin story: the formation of the band, its early struggles, and its first triumphant brush with the fame that was to make them a household name across the pond.
Director Moniek Merkx (also artistic director of Theatergroep Max.) brings an effervescence to the script that prevents the darkness of a VH1-style band profile from creeping in. It doesn’t hurt that her five male actors are a bunch of handsome, energetic firebrands who could each carry a production as a leading man, but who also know how to function as a supportive ensemble. Many rock bands could learn a valuable lesson from these performers’ obvious generosity with each other.
Introduced by a super-fan’s impressive film footage of her trip to The Beatles’ big London debut concert, the play time travels back to 1957 when Paul McCartney (Marne Miesen) and George Harrison (Erik van der Horst) meet teenaged washboard n' jug duo John Lennon (Matthijs van de Sande Bakhuyzen) and the doomed erstwhile Beatles leader, Pete (Viktor Griffioen).
A mash-up of the band’s original bassis Stuart Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best, Pete is older than the other Beatles by a couple of years, more responsible in the mid-century British sense, and a problematic drummer from the start. Not a bad drummer, mind you, but one that consistently clashes with the emerging Beatles’ style. He must be sacrificed. And he is.
Though the adults in the audience will see this coming a mile off (John, Paul, George and … who?) the kids may learn a very bad lesson from good-natured Pete’s dismissal. But more about that later.
Lithe and lovely sixth actor Lottie Hellingman is a manic, pixie-like whirlwind who tackles the roles of The Beatles’ female fans, ranging from the earliest and most heartbreaking (the dysfunctional mother who abandoned Lennon) to an obsessive young Liverpool groupie to the iconic teen screaming and crying in a thousands-strong crowd after the band hits it big.
The Beatles’ history is sanitized somewhat, but never sugarcoated. When Lennon’s quasi-homeless mother is struck and killed by a car, the policeman who drops by to inform the young man cautiously tries to make him state that she was suicidal, so that the driver (also a cop, and possibly drunk at the time) won’t get in trouble.
“Liverpool’s a harbor city and sometimes we need a drink,” the policeman informs Lennon, in a tone that indicates that this excuses everything.
Not long after, we see the Fab Three and Pete living it up in Hamburg circa 1960, enjoying the early rock 'n’ roll lifestyle, which includes playing all night and never sleeping. “But luckily, there’s a pill for that!” Harrison informs us, adding that it makes you act weird. Lennon begins acting weird. And then he takes out a large bottle of what appears to be vodka and chug-a-lugs.
So to recap: poverty, homelessness, drunk driving, and drug use. And then comes the very odd scene with the intoxicated German red light district hooker. At least, she strikes one old enough to judge such things (thank you, Cabaret) as a German red light district hooker. During one of The Beatles’ Hamburg performances, she staggers onto their stage out of nowhere and demands to know which of them will touch her 'bum.' She then waggles it about enticingly while some Teutonic thug, who is either her pimp or her equally drunk boyfriend, mutters and brandishes a long piece of foam usually found innocuously floating in a swimming pool. The scene is as startling and inexplicable as can be, and clarity is not achieved when, after her offer is rejected several times, Lennon creeps up behind her and plants a noisy kiss on her rear.
Cries of, “Ew!” echoed through the theater. And not just from the kids.
Seattle Children’s Theatre is recommending the play for kids age 11 and up. Use your own judgment on this one. I took a 6-year-old with me, who was oblivious to the significance of the vodka bottle or the reference to popping pills, and who found the bum-kissing gross but silly. The fact that Lennon’s ghost mom insisted on smoking a cigarette while haunting him later in the play was the most traumatic event of the evening in her eyes.
It’s the music that ties the entire production together, and it’s performed flawlessly. The ensemble tosses off iconic hits like “Twist and Shout,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” and of course “Help!” like pros. When a stuffy British matron sneers, “Awful boys with their awful music!” the sense that The Beatles were playing revolutionary music for their time will not be lost on even the youngest members of the audience.
So … Pete. Poor, poor Pete. In the third of the play's questionable choices (the first two being best summarized under the heading of “Hamburg”), our heros — a stiff upper lipped tetrarchy who vowed eternal loyalty to each other — sacrifices one member at the behest of a rather menacing figure in a trench coat and fedora, whose back is always to the audience. The man is Brian Epstein, destined to make The Beatles immortal … as long as they get rid of their ineffectual drummer.
More troubling than the German bum-waggler and the substance abuse references is the casual and callous way that the three 'real' Beatles swiftly dispose of Pete. In this hour and a half play, he is offed at approximately the hour and fifteen minute mark.
“We’re so close. We have to get rid of anything that holds us back,” McCartney informs Pete, after introducing him to Ringo Starr. The boys ask Starr to try out Pete’s drums, then promptly oust their friend. And next thing the audience knows, The Beatles are performing in front of 9,000 adoring fans.
A fantastic lesson for children of all ages.
If you go: HELP is on stage at Seattle Children’s Theatre through May 13. $20-$36. For tickets, visit www.sct.org.