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Theater Review: 'HELP' at Seattle Children's Theatre

TGMax HelpBy Alison Landeros

HELP, Seattle Children’s Theater’s newest production, is a musical revel. During the hour and a half-long show, the six incredibly talented actor/musician members of Dutch theater company Theatergroep Max will have you laughing, applauding, and cheering for a group of young protagonists we all know and love: the Beatles!

HELP offers a fantastic opportunity to share an evening of live music and skillful dramatic performances with your tween/teen kids (it's recommended for children ages 11 and up). Younger children will undoubtedly enjoy the music and have a good time, but this play handles subject matter appropriate for a more mature audience.

Part of the Beatles’ beginnings took place in the red-light district of Hamburg, and while this is not represented explicitly, there is mention of drug and alcohol abuse, and of the band members’ sexual awakenings. (Let's not forget that this is a story about the birth of rock n’ roll!) While the Beatles’ indulgence in vice might not set the greatest example, the protagonists of the play are teenagers working day and night to pursue their dreams in the face of frustration, conflict, and deep loss.

As the play begins we meet Nancy, one of our guides and a character that we come to understand as representative of the zeitgeist of post-WWII young women. Nancy is a Liverpool girl (portrayed by Lottie Hellingman, seasoned performer and nominee for the Dutch Academy Award for Best Actress) and she knows the Beatles well. She is attending the Beatles first post-recording-contract show in London, where they are about to begin their steep ascendance into fame. We see a close-up of Nancy’s face projected on the set’s backdrop, establishing immediate intimacy with her character. She is immersed in, and shocked by, the fervor of burgeoning Beatlemania.

Next we go backstage to meet John, Paul, George, and Ringo as they prepare for their set, frothing with anxiety and excitement. George (Erik van der Horst, a dynamic young actor) breaks the fourth wall to become our connection to the Beatles personal experiences. He asks us to go back in time to the Beatles’ beginnings where, after an extremely amusing moment where the actors move and speak backwards with a rewind effect, we visit to the original members' first meeting at a party in 1958.

Hard-core Beatles fans be forewarned -- HELP embraces the spirit of the Beatles early struggles and rise to fame, but this production dances around facts and historical accuracy. Pete Best, the Beatles original full-time drummer, is portrayed as the founder of the band (he did not become a member until two years after John, Paul, and George joined forces) and the existence and death of Stu Sutcliffe, their original bassist, was omitted entirely. Also, while the cast has done an admirable job of transitioning the play from Dutch-language performances to this, their first time performing in English, it was distracting to hear the “Beatles” speaking with Dutch, rather than Liverpudlian, accents. Nor did the cast really look like the Beatles, or attempt to, from what I could tell.

You may now be wondering, “Well, what about the music?” The music is exceptional. While the young men on stage may not look or speak like the Beatles, they do an impressive job of performing their songs. The play features some original music as well, but the Beatles songs are where these performers really shine. George Harrison’s dexterity as lead guitarist is not easy to duplicate, but van der Horst rocks his guitar parts like he was born playing them. Marne Mieson as Paul is great on bass and guitar, and Matthijs van de Sande Bakhuyzen as John plays guitar well and has a timbre to his voice -- beautiful, but colored by pain and rage -- very similar to John Lennon’s own.

When the three young men sing together, their harmonies are tight and they make it sound effortless. Viktor Griffioen (as Pete Best) on the drums kept time just fine, but his chops weren’t impressive. This may well have been intentional as Pete Best was replaced by Ringo Star for this very reason. Mees van Warmerdam (as Ringo) was a better drummer, that being his real-life specialty, but didn’t study Ringo’s signature fills the way van der Horst studied Harrison’s guitar technique. When Lottie Hellingman joins in as either Nancy or as Julia (John’s mother) her voice is strong and soulful. She’s also a great dancer.

On opening night, after the story arrived at its conclusion, and the actors took their final bow, we were given a special treat: a concert-style performance of several more songs! This was a fabulous end to the night, and will be a regular occurrence for the show's run.

Don’t miss this chance to immerse yourself and your children in an exciting story and fantastic music.

If you go . . .

When: HELP runs through Sunday, May 13, 2012. Thursday-Friday shows at 7 p.m.; Saturdays 2 and 5:30 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Prices: $20-$36

Where: Seattle Children’s Theatre at the Seattle Center

Tickets and information:

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