Photo by Carol Rosegg
Written by Bob Stevens
Directed by Carol Dunne
Based on a real incident, Bob Stevens’ affection tribute to the Beatles examines a moment a when the Fab Four – rock itself, for that matter – began maturing from a passing fad to an important voice for change.
It is 1964, the height of pop music’s British Invasion, and the Beatles, the world’s biggest band at the time, are set to play to a sold-out show at Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl. But Hurricane Dora has forced the lads to postpone the concert. Their road manager (Christopher Flockton) books a hotel in Key West, with George and Ringo sequestered in one room, Paul (Tommy Crawford) and John (Christopher Sears) in another. With throngs of rabid fans outside the inn, it isn’t safe for the boys to go outside. And they can’t pull in any English-speaking stations on the radio or “telly”, so they’re stuck with only each other for amusement. They fill up the time by horsing around and breaking out their guitars to strum a few of their faves by the likes of Chuck Berry and Gene Vincent.
Their antics are disrupted from time to time as journalists call in for some good-natured abuse from the boys, and one resourceful fan (Olivia Swayze) succeeds in getting as far as the air vent above the room. A more serious problem develops as word arrives of a troubling action taken by the Bowl’s proprietors. Florida is a southern state, which means the arena’s management plans to seat black audience members in a different section than whites. The lads, especially John, are having none of this: if the audience is segregated, there will be no show. This incident prompts a debate about whether writing silly love songs is a worthwhile pursuit in a world full so clearly of turmoil. While the mop-top Liverpudlians were busy strumming their way into the hearts of screaming schoolgirls, Bob Dylan and others were playing to a discerning audience who emphasized poetry and social criticism over danceable beats and crooning vocals. After having gotten high with Bob Dylan in New York, John believes the times are a-changin’, and the Beatles had better change with them. If they don’t, they’ll soon be only yesterday’s news. Paul demurs, but clearly John has set the gears clicking in his mind.
Weary of confinement and lubricated by alcohol from the hotel bar, the boys begin to open up about the deep wounds they carry inside. Both have lost their mothers at a young age. Paul coped by shutting down, John by lashing out (both would later pay tribute to their mothers in the lyrics of their songs). This is the first time they’ve been able to talk about it, and the feeling is palpable that the experience is a turning point in the development of their friendship and creative partnership.
Stevens’s trim, lively script deftly mingles the personal with the histori, with Michael Ganio’s detailed set evoking a beige Cold War world for whom rock and roll must have felt like a plasma infusion. Crawford and Sears wisely steer clear of strict impersonation, preferring instead to keep their acting choices spontaneous and natural. Flockton brings a touch of classic British comedy to his portrayal of the exasperated factotum, saddled with keeping the young “tossers” out of trouble, while Swayze is both appealing and ominous as the groupie who reminds the Beatles just how fickle their teen fans can be.
With all these positive ingredients, though, the show still feels more like an affectionate tribute than a deeply felt emotional journey. Carol Dunne directs with a light hand, so much so that the stakes don’t always feel high enough to keep us invested in the story. If the idea is to show us a glimpse of the real men behind the Fab Four image, it would be helpful to get a stronger dose of Lennon’s anger and self-protective wit, McCartney’s quiet stoicism, and of the roiling intellect that informed the band’s groundbreaking musical achievements. For Beatle aficionados, ONLY YESTERDAY will serve a welcome addition to the growing body of work inspired by the lives and songs of Lennon and McCartney. Judged purely as theater, it’s a well-crafted, agreeable production: perfectly entertaining, but not a must-see.
ONLY YESTERDAY continues through September 29, 2019 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, New York. Tickets: http://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/only-yesterday