Credit: Joan Marcus

Credit: Joan Marcus

It’s much harder to play John Lennon than Abraham Lincoln.  For one thing, no one alive knows how Lincoln sounded.  And, as far as we know, the sixteenth president  never wrote revolutionary rock music or edgy lyrics, or toured with three other lads, driving screaming throngs of hormonally charged teenagers to distraction.

And there’s the rub.  We do know how John Lennon looked and moved and spoke and sang.  Many of us, in the age-appropriate audience at the Union Square Theatre this weekend, had been those distracted girls.  We studied him, we memorized him, we loved him–and the other three lads.

So, when John R.Waters steps to the mike as Lennon in Lennon Through A Glass Onion, we have our reservations.   Waters actually looks more like Sting, with some Paul Newman tossed in, though, to be fair, we don’t know how Lennon would look now. (He’d be 74.)   When Waters speaks, it’s in Lennon’s voice, an impression he says he developed as a kid, to entertain his mates. When he sings, we fall easily under his spell.  He’s not John, but he’s channeling John.

As he combines this spoken-word storytelling with the thirty-four songs that make up the evening’s performance, Waters gives us intimate access to what Lennon may have been thinking and, so, writing and recording.  The angry kid in Lennon wrote Working Class Hero, rife with his childhood pain. Norwegian Wood is about his careless infidelities.  Julia is a cry to the mother lost to him at 17.  Beautiful Boy celebrates Shaun, the baby doctors said he and Yoko couldn’t have.

Weaving songs and spoken observation, the weft and warp of John Lennon’s too-short life, Waters gives us a credible version of the remarkably famous man we didn’t get to know.

The most familiar of the Beatles’ music is built on the harmonies of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  Neither claimed a stellar solo voice, but, in combination, they defined the sound of a generation.   Waters and fellow musician Stewart D’Arrietta do a remarkable job of giving that sound back to us.

With two men on a stage for ninety minutes, dividing up the credits is tough.  D’Arrietta sits at the piano and makes magic.  He is Paul–and George, and Ringo–where required. He is also the punishing parent; the acupuncturist who tells John to give up drugs to conceive a baby; and the self-righteous Strom Thurmond, who would have Lennon deported.  But most of all, D’Arrietta’s musicianship is dazzling, he fills the room.  He’s not back up, if set back; he’s shoulder-to-shoulder with Waters.

The two started work on Lennon Through A Glass Onion in 1992 and have toured it internationally through the intervening decades.  The twenty-week limited engagement at the Union Square Theatre is the New York debut. The AP reports the production has the blessing of Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono.

Lennon Through A Glass Onion  –  Conceived and performed by John R. Waters with Stewart D’Arrietta.  Music and Lyrics by John Lennon and Lennon & McCartney.

Music by arrangement with Downtown Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing.  Scenic and lighting design from Anthony “Bazz” Barrett and sound design from Adam Burbury.  At the Lennon Through A Glass Onion, 100 East 17th Street.  Ninety minutes with no intermission.