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There was only one major no-show on Friday night in Las Vegas for what turned out to be — as much as it could be — a Beatles reunion.
For the premiere of Cirque du Soleil’s stunning new Beatles show, “Love,” at the Mirage Hotel, a group of people came who have not been in the same room since — well, I don’t know — came together for one night only. Who would have thunk it?
Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the widows of John Lennon and George Harrison — Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison — united for a moment in time to honor the group's historic accomplishments. They are without a doubt the First Dysfunctional Family of Rock 'n' Roll.
That would have been extraordinary enough, but also present for the event were John’s first wife, Cynthia Lennon, their son, Julian, and Ravi Shankar, Harrison’s great musical influence and friend.
For a time after the show was over, this entire gang — as well as Apple Records’ masterminds Neil Aspinall and Jonathan Clyde, plus Paul’s brother-in-law/business partner John Eastman and old friend, record producer Peter Asher filled a very small space set up as a “private” party within a humongous celebration for the 4,000 people who’d come to see the first two official presentations of “Love.”
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They laughed together, ate together and reminisced. There was much picture-taking. As on the stage when “Love” concluded to resounding thunderous applause, standing ovations and tears, McCartney actually kissed Ono. Time stopped. Hell froze over. Ono, who wore a bright white suit and a matching big white floppy hat which she wore all night, kissed him back. She took pictures with Cynthia and Julian, whose financial fate she’s held in her hands often.
As a Beatle fan and amateur expert on the lives of these people, I thought maybe I was hallucinating. The whole of them, arms around each other, took victory bows in each of the four corners of the Mirage Theater’s massive stage-in-the-round when the show was over.
Paul, dressed in a black suit and white sneakers, looked thin and tired, maybe a little gaunt. This was not all due to flying in that day from London, but his recent marital difficulties were not the topic at hand.
Motioning frantically to the fawning, screaming crowd, McCartney quieted us down.
“We have to have applause for John and George,” he said of his missing comrades, and the place went crazy. “To John and George!”
(Cirque du Soleil creator Guy Laliberte, by the way, dedicated the show at the start to performers Siegfried and Roy, who had a long run in the same theater until their tiger accident. It was a classy note, and the pair was on hand to accept kudos.)
Later, in this tricked-up private area for Apple family members, Paul took a corner seat on a white couch and introduced me to his two assistants — a pair of lovely young things. He was accompanied as well by an older-looking couple whom he identified as “family.”
What did he think about this momentous occasion? “Love” is such a triumph for the Beatles and Cirque du Soleil its genius can barely be described (although I will try to do it justice below).
After the show, McCartney was overheard saying to Ringo Starr, a little startled by the magnitude of the evening, “We were a pretty f——ing great group, weren’t we?” Then he cut himself short and said, in a typical McCartney revision, “We were a pretty great group!”
Sitting on the white couch, about to receive Shankar, his wife, Ringo and a clutch of well-wishers, Paul seemed wiped out.
After all, one of his heroes, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, had been in the audience along with actress Helen Mirren and husband, director Taylor Hackford, plus Edgar Winter, Sheila E. and Colin Hay (all touring with Ringo in his band), Electric Light Orchestra guru Jeff Lynne, songwriter Stephen Bishop, producer Russ Titelman, Barbara Orbison (widow of Roy), Little Steven van Zandt with wife, Maureen, actor Jason Patric, director Gus van Sant and, improbably, billionaire Ron Burkle.
The only person missing? John Lennon’s son with Ono, Sean. He’d been advertised but never showed. Ono arrived and walked the red carpet with her publicist.
It was a bit reminiscent of last winter’s Grammy Heroes dinner in New York when Sean was conspicuously absent. On Friday night there was no explanation, which was odd considering that Sean has been photographed out on the town in New York a lot this past month.
So it was in front of all these people that McCartney — with Ono in the white hat and all the exhaustion of the public, embarrassing “revelations” about his soon-to-be ex-wife, Heather — watched “Love” in its entirety for the first time.
His voice and his songs constitute a good 75 percent of the show. It would have been an overwhelming experience for anyone.
“I thought it was wonderful,” he said, shaking his head, still taking it in. He’d kind of collapsed into the couch, eating vegetarian dishes that were only available in his section of the party. “It’s the first time I’ve seen it all the way through. I have to see it again.”
Within a second we were overcome by a wave of guests who wanted to find him, including Starr and wife, Barbara Bach.
Across the way, maybe 20 feet at most, sitting on another couch, Ono plopped down next to Cynthia, the woman whose marriage she broke up some 40 years ago.
“Thank you for coming to my party,” Ono said incongruously. Cynthia just smiled for the photographers. Later, I said to her, “I saw you talking to Yoko.”
She replied, “You saw her talking to me.” She paused. “It’s not like she gave me her phone number and said let’s get together.” The first Mrs. John Lennon shook her head in disbelief. “I think they call that a photo op.”
Cynthia had just received bad news that afternoon: she’d lost a close friend in Spain to cancer. She told me, “Between that and the show, I was close to tears at the end. I mean, the show really moved me. I was just at that point where I was going to start crying.”
Director Hackford (“Ray,” “Officer and a Gentleman”) told me he’d felt the same way, too.
“It’s our generation,” he said. “We know this music and what it means to us. It was very emotional.”
Mirren concurred, as did everyone else including even the guys from EMI Music — Phil Quartararo, Dave Munns and Johnny Barbis — who rep the Beatles in all recordings.
Indeed, the Cirque du Soleil show is very emotional, especially as the almost too-short 90-minute spectacular starts heading toward its finale.
I think that may be what did McCartney in, seeing video of the Beatles — really exceptionally well-edited — contrasted with the entire cast of the show dancing to “All You Need Is Love.”
The show — which has a magical combination of acrobatics, ballet, video and fanciful sets and costumes — suddenly gels disarmingly. Realizing the end is at hand is almost upsetting. You never want this one last trip to the fantasy that was the Beatles to end.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The real success of “Love” depends a lot on Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ producer. Watching the show, you can only think that none of this would be possible if the person who assembled the music didn’t know it inside and out. Martin and son Giles have literally taken the Beatles original recordings and, in many instances, turned them inside out.
Some songs are intact, but they are few. Instead, the Martins have pieces together unexpected medleys, woven in bits and pieces of the Beatles music with other fragments, and then stitched them like elements of a tapestry into a larger setting.
There’s no song list, and I hope I actually caught all the little references. For example, one of the central pieces is a masterpiece rendering of "Octopus’s Garden." The Martins have configured it so that another Ringo song, “Good Night,” is playing behind it until the whole thing becomes a nursery rhyme. It’s just splendid.
Imagine that the show begins with the opening night of “A Hard Day’s Night” segued right into the drum solo from the end of “Abbey Road.” These two things ordinarily would have nothing to do with each other. They are followed by a snippet of “Because” and then “Get Back,” the song that sets the tone for the show. Suddenly we’re in London during the Blitz, when each of the Beatles was born.
“Eleanor Rigby” depicts Liverpool in World War II, and “I Am the Walrus” takes on new significance (director Dominic Champagne told us he loves the lyric “I am he/As you are he/As you are me/And we are all together.”)
Then, quickly, it’s the '60s, all Beatlemania and Carnaby Street: “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Drive My Car,” “What You’re Doing” and “The Word” comprise a thrilling medley as the video projections and the actors recall an innocent time.
From then on, the plot — such as it is — doesn’t really matter. “Love” begins mixing and matching all the material from “Penny Lane” and the "Sgt. Pepper" album through the "White Album" and "Abbey Road." Each number is a self-contained little gem.
Some favorites: George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” features a bed that rises to the ceiling and unleashes a massive, billowing white sheet that covers all 2,000 audience members. “Lady Madonna” is a stomping percussive number depicted by many pairs of children’s slicker yellow boots dancing on tricycles. “Strawberry Fields” takes place inside Cirque du Soleil’s idea of a lava lamp.
With no exception, each number is its own little masterpiece. But there are bigger pieces, too, like a wild Dr. Seuss-type carnival that breaks out for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” In “Help,” teams of extreme skaters, dressed in black and white like football refs, are choreographed on curved ramps. This is sure to be one of the most popular numbers, and one that we see on TV as a clip. As Ed Sullivan used to say, the kids are going to love it.
Sometimes less is more, as in a cool ballet solo number by Charlotte O'Dowd performed to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
And other times, it’s all about being awesome as when “A Day in the Life” becomes a multimedia event that culminates in a Volkswagen Beetle (get it — there are two of them, used as metaphors) suddenly breaks apart into pieces.
And there’s a longish medley — “Can You Take Me Back,” "Revolution” and “Back in the USSR” that finishes with a previously unreleased (no one could place it, and it’s not from a Beatles Anthology) acoustic version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that is breathtaking.
There are plenty of other songs, too, don’t worry: “Hey Jude,” “Something,” “Come Together,” “Yesterday,” “Blackbird” and “Here Comes the Sun” — staged with remote-control miniature trains carrying little dishes of light — are all in there.
There are bits of “Let it Be,” “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “Magical Mystery Tour.”
And some that I thought were missing — like “In My Life” and “We Can Work It Out” — who knows? Maybe they’ll turn up in a sequel.
“Love” is just an exhilarating, phenomenal show, one that will not only revive the Beatles catalog but bring their music to a whole new generation.
The fact that it works at all is due not only to the Martins, but to director Champagne (what a name) and his incredibly talented cast and crew. They mix video, light and sound in what seem like groundbreaking ways. That it all seems new and fresh and alive is a real achievement (the huge theater is actually bifurcated four ways by see-through scrims that are also video screens.)
Now every rock group from the Stones and the Who to the Beach Boys and even Three Dog Night will want a show like this. But there’s only one Beatles, and with "Love," they’ve participated in yet another cultural milestone.