Review of Pepperland at the Wales Millenium Centre by Lois Arcari(2.5 / 5)
I was unsure of what to expect when I sat down to watch Mark Morris’ Pepperland at the Wales Millenium Centre. It’s practically criminal not to know and love the Beatles in at least some tangential way, or not to have one go to song to draw out as your favourite. But I wasn’t watching with the nostalgia of many of the audience who had been there the first time, who could see themselves in the chorus of screaming fans in the opening scenes. I’m also generally unfamiliar with the dance genre and haven’t watched professional dance shows in years. But I thought that the show would be the perfect splash of colour to brighten up characteristically unpredictable Easter behaviour.
The opening scene sealed my unease, with Ethan Iverson’s inventive score somewhat undermined by unearned hints of darkness. The theremin was a particular point of contention for this show. Personally, I adore this unconventional instrument, especially in the rightfully iconic Ed Wood theme. However, It’s an instrument best used sparingly.
When placed artfully in pieces like the ‘Penny Lane’ dance, it was unexpected but refreshing. However, there were moments where it threatened to drown the score and the audience with it, through no fault of the talented performer. The show seemed to have that sort of tone problem throughout. While sombre notes in the orchestration sometimes clashed welcomely with the candy cane cheer of the costumes, more often than not they felt misplaced and unearnt in regards to the dancers, who were performing – wonderfully as always throughout the production – dances that didn’t meet the new tone to the music.
Again, when it worked it worked, but there were only brief flashes where it did. Some of the transitional dances were overly repetitive, but the technical prowess of the dancers can’t be faulted. Whatever the audience felt about the score or singing – and we’ll come to that later – the dancers had them all immediately onside, providing the audience with plenty of laughs alongside genuinely warm applause.
Despite their obvious prowess during the more cheerful numbers – especially my favorite of the set, ‘Penny Lane’, they were equally as impressive, if not more, when performing more tender and sombre scenes. The romantic dances especially were things of beauty. They represented a tender sixties fairytale where race, gender, sexuality and time meant nothing. Love and light were all, even when the lights dimmed and love faded. The show managed to give it’s very basic staging maximum impact. The ebbs and flows of lights and colour flexing to the music. Of particular note was the way that Iverson drew out the Beatles’ Indian influences to their most lavish conclusion.
The singer, however, was met with mixed reviews. Not doubting his vocal talents, he simply didn’t seem to fit the production. The dancers and their costumes indicated something more joyful which would take itself less seriously. The score was theatrical but often confused. Vocal talent and power alone can’t replicate charm, and the operatic style seemed like just another confusion added to the pile. The singer would have benefited from a show which approached its tone with more intent, or allowing himself some lapses in technical skill for raw emotion. In those brief moments where he did falter, his singing became much more powerful.
Perhaps the best way of summarising this show is ‘if you’re here for a beatles sing-along, that’s not going to happen.’ This mild, half unknowing derision of the audience suggests that this show has ambitions beyond its color palate, and has left fans outside of the review circuit – including my plus one – feeling rather cold, while it enjoys status as a critical darling. Still, the genuine love that emanates from the company’s every dance move – and the Beatles themselves as an evergreen subject matter – were enough to keep some lonely hearts more firmly on its side.