Theater review: ‘Just Imagine’ at NoHo Arts Center

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Between 1962 and 1969, John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote 180 songs that would score the emotional life of generations. ‘Just Imagine,’ Tim Piper’s uneven but fervent tribute to Lennon at the NoHo Arts Center, takes us through the creative journey that started it all.

Tribute shows have to meet impossible expectations: On one hand, they must conjure the legend in question, yet if they give us exactly what we expect, there’s no surprise. ‘Just Imagine,’ directed by Steve Altman, lives somewhere between real gratification and slight lull with its steady menu of Beatles and Lennon gems.

Piper, with his tea shades and overgrown hair, makes for a credible Lennon, and his vocal stylings and intonations are impressive. He delivers strong versions of ‘Money,’ ‘Revolution,’ ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,’ ‘Come Together’ and ‘I Am the Walrus.’ And while the band rocks on, an elaborate video show plays above them, featuring archival photos and thematic images.

So far, so entertaining. Unfortunately, Piper’s accompanying monologue reliving Lennon’s tumultuous life is self-conscious and often lugubrious. This overwritten confessional can sap momentum, which then has to be restarted by a new song. Kudos to the band, Working Class Hero, led by Greg Piper on bass, which never lets the audience drift too far. (Sound designer Jonathan Zenz and sound operator Greg Feo keep the energy high without deafening the crowd.)


The best moments come when Piper sticks to the music. After intermission, acoustic guitar in hand, he takes requests, revealing a command of the Lennon library and an appealingly straightforward performance style. At another point, Piper uses ‘We Can Work It Out’ to demonstrate the distinction between Paul’s mastery of melody and John’s more bluesy approach; it was the collision of these styles, Piper suggests, that yielded genius. The brief music lesson is a fascinating analysis that deserves more stage time.

The latter part of the show features Lennon’s post-Beatles work, including ‘Woman,’ ‘Watching the Wheels’ and, of course, his classic peace anthem, which never seems to loses its relevance.

Hard-core Beatles fans probably won’t learn anything they don’t already know but will savor the chance to goo-goo-ga-joob with favorite songs. Yes, iTunes may be convenient, but nothing matches ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ live, dense and ecstatic, raining down around your ears.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

‘Just Imagine,’ NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Dark Nov. 27-Dec. 6. Ends Jan. 2. $35 to $55. (866) 811-4111 or Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.