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Ono brings 'Lennon' down

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NEW YORK -- Compared with the other lavishly produced karaoke contests luring middle-aged rock fans to Broadway, Lennon (** out of four) would seem to have a higher purpose. This musical tribute to John Lennon, which opened Sunday at the Broadhurst Theatre, aims to celebrate the personal and creative integrity of an artist whose brilliance and sheer goodness were never fully appreciated by those who misunderstood her.

That's right, "her." Oh, sorry -- you didn't think I was referring to old John, did you? I meant his widow, Yoko Ono, whose permission was required to stage this production, and whose loving but self-serving fingerprints are all over it.

It would be ridiculous, of course, to try to tell John Lennon's story without including key roles both on stage and behind it for the woman he considered his soul mate. And I don't doubt that Ono, who licensed the producers and librettist/director Don Scardino rights to her late husband's songs, wanted to honor its subject, who wouldn't have wanted his legacy to be dominated by his role in that seminal supergroup The Beatles.

But suggesting that the Fab Four was some inconsequential pop act that provided Lennon a stepping stone to his true calling is as unfair to him as it is to the other Beatles. They come off here -- in that chunk of the first act that they're acknowledged at all -- as a buffoonish boy band. Paul McCartney, whose melodic genius was as integral to The Beatles' rise, and thus Lennon's, as any other factor, gets even shorter shrift in Lennon than he has from snobbish rock critics.

Ono, in contrast, is revealed as a visionary worthy of her partner. And as played by the lovely Julie Danao-Sulkin, this Yoko is so surreally virtuous, so patient and noble in the suffering heaped on her by sexist, Asian-bashing detractors -- and a straying husband, at one point -- you half expect her to endure that crucifixion Lennon envisioned for himself in The Ballad of John and Yoko.

Lennon's title character is portrayed in turn by actors of different genders, races and ethnicities, a conceit that reinforces how his music and activism embraced the scope of human experience. One questions the point, though, of casting a woman as Elton John, or having a black man appear as Ed Sullivan and segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond, beyond seeking a subversive or comic edge.

There are, thankfully, a number of playful flourishes in Lennon -- including a joking reference to Ono's, um, controversial singing voice -- along with genuinely moving moments. But when you imagine all the people whom Lennon's songs and spirit touched, you can't help but wish him better.

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