By Richard Ades
Even if you’ve always idolized the Beatles, chances are you’ll learn something new from Bigger Than Jesus. Shadowbox Live’s “live rockumentary” intersperses songs from the Fab Four’s incredible canon with tidbits of information about the group.
For instance, did you know that in 1964 the Liverpudlian quartet refused to play the Gator Bowl until the Florida facility set aside its segregated ways? Or that Blackbird (whose title was mod slang for “black girl”) was a response to the civil rights movement?
And did you know that Eric Clapton had an uncredited guitar solo in While My Guitar Gently Weeps?
Well, maybe you knew that, but you won’t mind if the show’s narrators occasionally tell you stuff you’ve already heard. You’ll be too busy enjoying the music that makes up the bulk of its running time. Performed in roughly chronological order, the songs are some of the band’s biggest and best hits.
Given John, Paul, George and Ringo’s well-known expertise as musicians and recording innovators, a Beatles retrospective is a dangerous undertaking. Viewers won’t be satisfied unless the song renditions approximate the fun and excitement of the originals. For the vast majority of the show, Shadowbox succeeds.
After a few early numbers that are merely pleasant, things begin to heat up with Kevin Sweeney’s electrifying delivery of Help! JT Walker III then slows things down with the first of several numbers to benefit from his golden touch, the gorgeous Norwegian Wood.
Afterward, director Stev Guyer explains the John Lennon quote that gave the show its name. According to documentary footage projected on the room’s video screen, Lennon’s sardonic comment that the Beatles would surpass Jesus in popularity led to a boycott in at least one Southern city. The KKK also jumped on the anti-Beatles bandwagon, we learn.
Guyer begins the evening by jokingly apologizing to viewers whose favorite songs were inevitably left out. There were simply too many great ones to choose from, he says.
Indeed, it’s not hard to think of classics that didn’t make the cut: Yesterday, for one. Or She Loves You, the joyous anthem that helped to define the mopheads during their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
But there are so many other gems that are included. Some of the most memorable (and their featured vocalists): Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Leah Haviland), Magical Mystery Tour (Amy Lay and Walker), Penny Lane (Will Macke), Helter Skelter (Stephanie Shull), While My Guitar Gently Weeps (Jeff Simpson) and She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (Sweeney).
Many numbers are marked by fine harmonizing on the part of backup singers. In others, the Matthew Hahn-led band plays a leading role, as when surreal instrumental crescendos interrupt in A Day in the Life.
The psychedelic and colorful costumes (designed by Linda Mullin, Nick Wilson and Lyn Helenberger) help to recapture an era and a band that were increasingly influenced by mind-altering drugs. Katy Psenicka’s choreography is another important element of the proceedings. It’s especially enjoyable when the vocalists themselves bust a few moves, as they do in When I’m Sixty-Four (sung by Tom Cardinal, Haviland and Macke).
If you’re old enough to remember the Beatles, Bigger Than Jesus is nostalgic fun. If you’re not, it’s one hell of a history lesson.
Bigger Than Jesus: A Live Rockumentary About the Band That Changed the World continues through Aug. 7 at Shadowbox Live, 503 S. Front St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. select Wednesdays and Thursdays, 2 and 7 p.m. select Sundays. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25, $20 for students and seniors. 614-416-7625 or shadowboxlive.org.