- Courtesy Of Rob Strong
- Tommy Crawford (left) and Christopher Sears
The rich harmonics of the opening chord of "A Hard Day's Night" are the energetic start to Bob Stevens' Only Yesterday, taking us back to 1964 when Beatlemania was at its peak.
In its world premiere at Northern Stage, the play imagines how John Lennon and Paul McCartney spent the day when their U.S. tour was grounded in Key West, Fla., because of a storm. With nothing to do but wait out the weather in a cheap motel room, the two 22-year-olds are alone together after months of performing for arenas of fans.
If you arrive with a working knowledge of John and Paul, you may acquire no new insights, but you'll see their knack for handling fame without a blueprint. They're powerful enough to force the promoter of their Jacksonville, Fla., concert to back down from his plan to segregate the audience, cool enough not to take adulation too seriously and young enough to jump on their beds to let off steam.
The show isn't intended as biography, nor can it provide character development over the course of a few hours of downtime on the road. Instead, it's a peek behind the curtain, a curtain thousands of Beatles fans may still yearn to draw open.
Stevens imagines the details of John and Paul's time in a cut-rate motel room with a TV that only gets Spanish programming from Cuba. The road manager can barely scrounge up sandwiches, and the bar doesn't open for hours. Outside the singers' door are howling winds and howling fans who've discovered the Beatles are unexpectedly in town.
John and Paul can't settle on any diversion to occupy themselves until they pull out their guitars and jam on the music that inspired them, trying out songs to cover. The storytelling doesn't concern their music-making process or even tell us much about the relationship between these two collaborators, but the sight of them reveling in the music that transports them is exhilarating.
The play doesn't explore any dark sides of our heroes, unless you count Paul spending time in front of a mirror, a little too impressed with his own hair. Even though the boys make fun of the overwrought messages in their fan mail, John writes one admirer a personal note.
The characters onstage are not documentary subjects, and for most viewers, they're less Stevens' creations than the personifications of whatever memories an audience member has of them. To watch the play is to recall your own spot on a Beatles timeline and how their music affected you. Cheeky John and adorable Paul, with their mussable hair and Liverpool accents, must conform to what we imagine them to be.
The two actors pour themselves into meeting the challenge. Tommy Crawford radiates the same sweet charm that animates Paul's face, and he not only plays guitar well but does so as a lefty, like McCartney.
Christopher Sears conveys John's youthful combination of truculence and wonder, down to uttering his wry jokes in a monotone that mocks both the listener and the world itself.
Their energy shows when they respond to being cooped up with a pillow fight. Both actors have to work a little too hard at their accents, but it's easy to overlook that limitation when Sears and Crawford approximate the same vocal register as Lennon and McCartney in a duet or leap about the room with youthful abandon.
They play vigorous, passionate versions of the kind of music that animated Lennon and McCartney, including tunes by Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. A joyous Elvis Presley impersonation sums up what they love about America.
As the road manager, Chris Flockton is a bemused blend of parent, guard and enabler. With cool composure, Flockton solves problems so the lads stay as happy as possible.
Olivia Swayze plays Shirley Knapp, a fan with enough zeal to get oh-so-close to her idols. Swayze hits the right note between awestruck and insistent.
Scenic designer Michael Ganio anchors the show with realistic motel details that convince viewers they're watching a true story. Over the thrust stage hangs a suggestion of the room's ceiling, and the furnishings and walls are detailed down to the ventilation duct. Then Ganio adds a clever stroke of artifice, listing all the tour dates and locations on a glowing projection behind the action that reminds us these playful young men were working hard.
From Beatle boots to John's leather cap, Allison Crutchfield's perfect costumes let 1964 British Invasion fashion do all the talking. It's fun to see John and Paul lounging without peeling off their skinny ties and bright white shirts, as if their uniforms were just as comfortable to them as they were to the mainstream trying to tame rock and roll with respectable clothes.
For all its pleasures, the play is limited to a look at the mundane details of two engaging young men wasting time. Stevens got his idea for the show from McCartney's recollection in an interview that he and Lennon were once stuck in a motel, where one of their conversations ended with both of them crying.
Stevens tries for an emotional finale by imagining what the characters would say, after a night of drinking, about how losing their mothers as teenagers affected them. The facts are tragic, but in Thursday's preview performance, the moment was more wistful than gut-wrenching.
The script's strength is in letting us imagine a day in the life, and that structure has nothing to do with a play's typical arc of change or conflict. And it's fair to warn you that Beatles music plays only as an overture phrase and a curtain song.
Still, watching John and Paul making cheerful sense of life as pop idols is quite entertaining. Knowing what lies ahead for them renders this look back poignant and delightful.