“ I’d love to turn you on…”
“Pepperland,” Mark Morris’ homage to the Beatles 50th anniversary of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, is like falling inside a bubble gum machine where the colors are dayglo, the sugar addictive, at times too sweet, but always entertaining. “Pepperland” carries the colors of the 60’s through costumer Elizabeth Kurtzman’s mod fashion design of brightly colored mini skirts, and pencil-thin suits with skinny neckties made famous by the Beatles. Lighting designer Nick Kolin saturates the stage with equally complimentary brilliance of turquoise or purple backsplashes.
As expected from Morris, the choreography is whimsical and witty, seemingly effortless, a kaleidoscope of psychedelic color of ever-changing chorus lines, reemerging groupings, running lifts, and repetitions of dancers being dragged from behind another dancer in leg splits as the lead dancers walks slowly downstage. Camaraderie abounds, as the dancers promenade in twos and groups with generous smiles and frequent shoulder hugs.
The substance for this entire sweeping rainbow, cotton candy confection is provided by composer Ethan Iverson’s score; an idiosyncratic mash-up of half of the album’s original songs rearranged with jazzy, dissonant cabaret-like, even vaudevillian sounding interpretations. These segments are interlaced with six new pieces of music based on the “undercurrent of classical music presented in the original album” that afford Morris an evening length performance to pop in his ballet roots, inserting the classic music and ballet forms of allegro, scherzo, and adagio in between “When I’m Sixty-four,” Penny Lane,” “Within And Without You,” and “Penny Lane” etc. Best of all, Iverson gets a little help from his friends–seven stellar musicians who perform his score live. This ensemble includes, Rob Schwimmer on Theremin, Colin Fowler on organ, harpsichord and keyboard, Sam Newsome on soprano saxophone, percussionist Vinnie Sperrazza, trombonist Jacob Garchik and the haunting vocals of baritone Clinton Curtis. His bluesy operatic vocals take the familiar out of the songs so deeply ingrained in our psyche and force us to listen to them both memory and something we’ve never heard before. In this vein, one of the most exquisite moment of “Pepperland” happens with, “A Day In A Life” when the first part of the song is done without vocals, affording baby boomers in the audience to hear “I read the news today, oh, boy…” just the same. It is as if the volume was turned down to enable the internal vocals to fill in, and then the piece breaks out “Woke-up, got out of bed” as dancers become equally more animated miming the catching a “bus in seconds flat.”
“Pepperland” is joyous, a gift in part from Cal Performances who has commissioned and co-commissioned Mark Morris for over 30 years. “Pepperland” is the 11th work of his they have funded that also includes, a residency, community classes and a film series that Morris curated at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; “Mark Morris Presents: In the Age of Pepperland.” Morris, an avid cinephile, thinks that the 60s were and “unbelievably productive and fertile decade for cinema” and will be present to introduce several films.
David E. Moreno