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"Pepperland" Shakes Up a Beatles' Classic for the Stage

Photo by Stephanie Berger
I predict that the finest premiere of a new dance work this year will be Pepperland by Mark Morris—one of the best of contemporary choreographers—which I attended on the opening night of Wednesday, May 8th, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Howard Gilman Opera House, and which runs through the 11th.
Apart from Morris’s marvelously inventive choreography—my favorite of his alongside that of The Hard Nut, which was presented at BAM last December — I’d like to especially highlight the delightful, colorful costume design of Elizabeth Kurtzman, as well as the lighting design by Nick Kolin. The piece is an homage to, and adaptation of selections from, the landmark record album by the Beatles released in the summer of 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with original music and arrangements by Ethan Iverson, performed by the Mark Morris Dance Group Music Ensemble and with vocals by Clinton Curtis.
Morris’s artistry here is very much in the tradition of the the extraordinary populist ballets of Jerome Robbins and the satiric works by Paul Taylor, as well as the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s and 1960s, although on this occasion I was reminded of nothing so much as the fabulous dances conceived by the underrated Irish choreographer Norman Maen for the magnificent film by Jacques Demy, The Young Girls of Rochefort, also released in 1967.
The dazzling opening recapitulates the album’s immortal title track followed by a hilarious episode recreating its celebrated cover. The beautiful “With a Little Help from My Friends” was written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon for Ringo Starr who was never more memorable. McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four” was cleverly arranged as an instrumental. George Harrison’s contribution, the exotic “Within You Without You” struck a more serious note amidst the ebullient proceedings.
McCartney’s brilliant, nostalgic “Penny Lane” was originally released as a single (along with Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”) and was first intended for the album but instead appeared on the subsequent Magical Mystery Tour. Morris wittily inverted the order of the two concluding tracks, with the haunting “A Day in the Life”—quirkily arranged here replete with an unexpected theremin—preceding the glorious reprise of the title track, which was the accompaniment to an exhilarating finale. I hope that this exquisite opus will receive the abundant exposure and acclaim that it deserves.

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