John Lennon's Life and Music Unfold in Australian Play

`LOOKING Through a Glass Onion,'' a new play about the life of John Lennon, gives you an odd sensation. It's like seeing Lennon playing a small club with a superb studio band in the 1990s. Here's this guy, in a cool gray Italian suit with a black T-shirt, who looks like Lennon and sings his songs; not exactly like him, he's raspier, but close enough. Plus, he's got this tight band that plays Beatles and Lennon songs, but with snazzy new interpretations.

The project is a collaboration: Musical director Stewart D'Arrietta, who plays keyboards and sings harmony, chose songs he felt captured the essence of Lennon. John Waters, one of Australia's leading actors and musical performers, who plays Lennon, conceived the idea and wrote the monologue that links the songs.

``Looking Through a Glass Onion'' is a collage of Lennon's life. He talks about Paul McCartney (``Paul was much more advanced musically. He had diminished chords.''); the impact that Dylan had on him; the connection with the Maharishi, the racism the British press showed toward Yoko Ono; breaking up with the Beatles; he and Yoko having their son, Sean, after doctors told them they couldn't. On his and Yoko's peace efforts: ``We didn't mind being clowns. We were a PR company for peace. War got all the footage, we wanted to redress the balance.''

It's thematically organized around 26 songs, including ``Day in the Life,'' ``Lucy in the Sky,'' ``All You Need is Love,'' ``Strawberry Fields,'' ``Julia,'' ``Woman,'' ``Watching the Wheels,'' ``Isolation,'' and ``Imagine.''

Lennon, through Waters's eyes, is a sardonic, somewhat isolated guy trying to get free of the image people have of him long enough to find out who he is. He says he ``loves fame,'' but he's also bemused, irritated, and sadly perplexed by the distorting effect fame has on people. He shakes his head at a fan waiting five hours for an autograph.

Waters, despite his physical and vocal resemblance to the singer, is not after an impersonation of the former Beatle; it's more of an evocation. There's a sheen of integrity about the project - it doesn't desecrate Lennon's memory by copying him. The music starts with the technical brilliance achieved by Lennon and takes it further by infusing it with Waters's and D'Arrietta's own intelligence and vision. And because there is one extra player, the sound is fuller.

Sentimentality is scrupulously avoided. Waters's take on Lennon is fairly specific: This is the world-weary, ironic Lennon, the puncturer of hypocrisy. A few funny bits pop out, but not much is seen of Lennon's early impishness. While the title, ``Glass Onion'' implies that we will see various layers of Lennon, the show seemed to peel down to just one: melancholy.

Nonetheless, it is an insightful homage to a man who influenced lives, music, and an entire youth culture. And the music is great.

The other members of the band are: Klaus Bussman, guitar; Sam McFerran, bass; and Hamish Stuart, drums. David Cafe is sound designer.

* ``Looking Through a Glass Onion'' will continue its Australian tour with these shows: Launceston, March 8 to 12; Hobart, March 15 to 19; Parramatta, March 21 to April 6; Newcastle, April 7 to 16; Melbourne, April 18 to May 14; Coolangatta, May 18 to May 21; Perth, May 23 to June 25; Adelaide, July 18 to Aug. 6. Other performances have not been set.

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