The Beatles Come Together

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ETHAN MILLER / GETTY

A performer marches across the stage during a preview of "The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil" at the Mirage Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada

At one of last week's preview performances of Love — the new Beatles show staged by the Montreal theater troupe Cirque du Soleil at the Mirage resort in Las Vegas — a distinguished-looking gent with an elegant manner and Toscanini mane gazed raptly at the proceedings. He swayed his long frame to the songs, clapped along with "Hey Jude" and, when a huge bed sheet whooshed up from the stage to eventually cover most of the 2,000 spectators, lifted his arms with an eager reverence to touch the fabric, as if it were a gigantic Shroud of Turin.

How many members of the cast or the audience recognized George Martin, who as the group's record producer surely deserves to be called the fifth Beatle? Martin, now 80, had with his son Giles confected the elaborate and imaginative soundscape for Love. When the extravaganza officially opens Friday night, the Martins will be joined by the surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and by George Harrison's widow Olivia and John Lennon's widow Yoko Ono. My guess is that they'll be pleased and moved.

Of course, not everyone is famous. But anyone who sees and hears Love can fall in it. The night after Martin graced the show with his presence, the audience filed out after the final number — "All You Need Is Love," with four large screens displaying photo and film collages of the actual Fab Four — but one man seemed rooted to his seat. A thin fellow of about 60, with long gray hair that pony-tailed down his back, he held his head in his hands, his shoulders lurching as he sobbed softly. Such is the power of the Beatles' music, their impact, their legacy. And such is the intensity of retrieved memory in the generation that grew up with them.

The Fab Four were together for only eight years, from 1962, when Ringo joined the band, to early 1970, when "Get Back" was released. Eight years. That's less time than Britney Spears has been doing ... whatever she does, and less than a quarter of the time the Beatles have been apart.

Here's the definitive Beatles reunion: of the group (heard working, playing and joking in the studio); of its prime collaborator, George Martin; and of the original Beatlemaniacs. Forty years after John said the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus," 40 summers after the release of Revolver, these one-time-teen fans are now their grandparents' age and — if they make the trip to the appropriately named Mirage, and if the gray-haired hippie in the bleachers is any indication — moist in reverie.

Here Comes Soleil

The pedigree of this $150 million production might guarantee its success. (It's booked to run for 10 years, in the space once occupied by the Siegfried & Roy animal act that established Vegas's love for outsize theatrical spectacle.) The top ticket price is $150 for the 95-min. show, which runs ten times a week, compared to a Broadway musical's eight. The show could well take its place in the Cirque empire: five permanent shows in Vegas, another (La Nouba) at Walt Disney World in Florida, and six tent shows, from the new Corteo to the 14-year-old Saltimbanco. These enterprises are hugely successful; their total annual box office revenue is close to the $840 million earned by all Broadway shows this season.

But Love holds a special challenge, not just for its director, Dominic Champagne (who helmed the tent show Varekai and the sexy Vegas cabaret Zumanity), but for the company as a whole. Cirque's trademark is the creation of original artifacts; Love is the first one whose subject carries its own reverberations and weight, meaning and memories. Beatles songs do what Cirque directors do: tell stories, weave moods, conjure fictional worlds. People coming to Love bring their personal connections to the songs with which Champagne's interpretations must compete. His task is not just to devise a magical mise-en-scene for a number but to equal the power of the original song. Otherwise, a viewer watching the Cirque interpretation of a Beatles song could say, "I don't see it like that."

But that's only half the point, for the show relies as much on what is heard — the Martins' reworking of Beatles standards — as what is shown. Love is the most lavish expression of Cirque founder and boss Guy Laliberté's latest obsession: to merge the ballet-acrobat-theatrical Cirque style to modern music. He wants Delirium, with its Barnum & Bailey disco format, to fill nightclubs and arenas in large cities. Cirque is planning another Vegas show for 2008: a bio-evocation of Elvis.

Laliberté could have no suaver guide through the Beatles' catalog than the Martins, father and son. George was not only present at the creation; he was crucial to it. He was the one who insisted that Ringo Starr (anyone, actually) replace Pete Best as the band's drummer. He gave the early hits a clean, full sound. And as Lennon and McCartney grew apart, but even more impressively grew, as songwriters, each found in the elder Martin an ideal ear and musical mind, a kind of co-creator. It was Martin who put a string quartet under Paul's solo guitar rendition of "Yesterday" — the first of many flabbergasting expansions of the Beatles' basic rock 'n' roll sound — and who helped alchemize John's "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "I Am the Walrus" into coherent electronic chaos.

The audio here is no less complex. The Martins have ransacked the Beatles library for alternate versions of songs: John's early take of "Strawberry Fields," for example, slimmer in production values but more haunting. They play one a cappella piece, "Sun King," backward. They have jumbled bits of different tunes into Ivesian concoctions. "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" now concludes with (according to the press notes) "excerpts from 'Cry Baby Cry,' sound effects from 'Good Morning Good Morning,' laughter from 'Piggies,' noises from 'I Want You (She's So Heavy),' 'Helter Skelter' and audio snippets of The Beatles joking around during recording sessions."

Champagne and the Martins want the audience to feel the intimacy of the Beatles at work and play in the studio. (All dialogue, except for a few lines spoken by characters in the show, is from John, Paul, George and Ringo in the '60s.) Sometimes the chatter is used to introduce a song. We hear John's voice — "The Birds. A Hitchcock movie" — and hear the guitar intro to "Blackbird." At other times the bavardage is there just to capture the group's breezy wit. George asks whether his guitar is out of tune (it is), and John tosses out an impromptu verse: "I suddenly discovered that I was out of tune,/ But I kept on playin', 'cause I'm no goon."

The "goon" line is not just a clever ad-lib on John's part. It shows that Champagne is attentive to the arcana of the Beatles' biography. In their youth they were fans of BBC Radio's The Goon Show, whose stars, including Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, all recorded comedy albums produced by George Martin. It was his connection to the Goons, not his work on jazz albums, that first endeared Martin to John and the others. Another number in the show, "Eleanor Rigby," which takes place in the wreckage of postwar Liverpool, has a cratered, post-nuclear look reminiscent of Milligan's play The Bed Sitting Room, which was filmed by Richard Lester, who directed the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night and Help! That's one of the pleasures of Love for Beatle scholars: the ripples keep widening. (Oh, and Giles Martin's godfather? Milligan again.)

Can You Take Me Back Where I Came From?

Love begins in darkness. Silence. And God said, Let there be sound. "Aaaaah aaaaah." The room is filled with the vocal from "Because," a cappella, with extra pauses between the phrases (a space for listeners to insert their own muted "aaahs"). That tight harmony — ecclesiastical, almost angelic, in its purity — is a reminder of the Beatles' vocal virtuosity: that the moptops were, among many other things, avatars of a barbershop quartet.

Then "Get Back" starts chugging its intro and quickly explodes. Sights and sounds bombard the audience: skyrockets on two large projection screens, silhouettes of the group and a frenetic milling of the cast, including bungee-cord duos (the boy above, the girl bouncing below). It's a rambunctious cue for nostalgia, for emotional flashback. Love calls on the audience, and the Beatles as well, to take a return trip "to where you once belonged."

Not to the '60s, but further back, to Liverpool of World War II. We have already seen sailors in this port town climb ships' ropes to come ashore. Now we get the sound of bombs and artillery fire, before a Winston Churchill figure (irreverently dubbed Mr. Piggy) announces that the war is over. The girl who would become Queen Elizabeth II struts about in a cameo frame, a living portrait. (And a rude one: Her Majesty is played by a man, as we discover when she removes the frame, her wig and most of her clothes.)

Liverpool lightens up, and Britain brightens, when Beatlemania breaks loose in the early '60s. Guys in leather jackets and girls in plaid jumpers cavort around a Volkswagen car (a Beetle, what else?). The Fab Four, caged by their superstardom, are seen in silhouette, trying to escape from spotlight bubbles; then they walk off, duplicating the Abbey Road cover amble — cute. Love follows the Beatles through their phases: psychedelic ("Strawberry Fields"), Hindu-mystical ("Within You, Without You") and political ("Revolution," with images of protests, then the letters in Peace and Love literally disintegrating).

Though the show has a few longueurs and excesses, Champagne typically finds mind-expanding ways to visualize the songs. He sets this theater-in-the-round spinning with big ideas and vibrant images: kids with blank faces (for "Nowhere Man"), an Eleanor Rigby character toting her past in a cluttered cart, a jaunty man on trombone-shaped stilts, a Sergeant Pepper figure toting an instrument out of Ted Geisel — a Seuss-ophone. For "Help!", four extreme athletes zoom up and over two U-shaped slides. Harrison's gorgeous "Here Comes the Sun" (which never sounded better) is accompanied by four women performing aerial yoga. In "Revolution," there's a last exuberance before everything starts to crumble: acrobats vault onto and over an English phone booth (with the aid of trampolines). It recalls the best routine in La Nouba and is pretty fabulous.

The loveliest number is "Something." All right; it's a great song; if it were done in the dark it would still be wonderful. But Champagne's version is as good as the original, maybe better. Three young women swing, on coat-hanger-shaped trapezes, above a man who yearns for all of them but can possess none. The women's description of arcs and helixes in the air, the grace and complexity of their movements, cast a spell over the audience. It's a mesmerizing form of sorcery in motion.

All You Need

Because it is bound to explicate the songs, manufacture beguiling riffs of performance art to suit them, Love cannot reach the ecstatic kinetic heights of Ka, Cirque's martial arts show, or O, its water ballet. But it does no disservice to the new production to say that it's a Beatles show every bit as much as a Cirque show. The music still enthralls; the visuals ornament it beguilingly. Champagne has come near to achieving the impossible: create a new nostalgia. A decade from now, some oldster may be weeping in the Mirage theater, remembering the night when he first saw, heard and felt Love.