This freewheeling, extended adaptation of the Beatles’ classic album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band began life appropriately enough in Liverpool, where it premiered as part of that city’s 50th anniversary of the record celebration. Thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures’ role in co-commissioning the work, we got to not only see it but also meet with choreographer Morris and composer Ethan Iverson for an informative and hilarious question-and-answer session after last Thursday’s performance.
Those who were expecting a “sing-along to ‘When I’m 64’” as Morris drily put it in the Q&A did not get that. Between Iverson’s knotty, jazz-influenced score and Morris’s powerful personal style as a choreographer, there was precious little that could be described as a faithful representation of the Beatles or the period. Beginning with a sequence where individual dancers stepped up and identified themselves as various figures from the album’s iconic cover — Shirley Temple, Sonny Liston, Albert Einstein — it was clear that some tension between what the dancers were doing and the original music would be part of the formula.
The standout sequences included a daring, complex arrangement of “Penny Lane” and a transcendent, raga-influenced “Within You, Without You.” The subtle, mostly instrumental version of “A Day in the Life” captured some of the underlying existential dread of the original without completely harnessing its counterbalancing drive. Overall, Pepperland, while more Morris than Beatles, was a fascinating glimpse of what one of the greatest recordings of all time could become when sifted through the sensibility of a major artist.