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Celebrity Series presents tribute to Beatles’ landmark album

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Celebrity Series presents tribute to Beatles’ landmark album
The Mark Morris Dance Group was presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston in “Pepperland.” PHOTO: ROBERT TORRES

The Mark Morris Dance Group brought its evening-length suite “Pepperland,” a tribute to the landmark 1967 Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to Boston last weekend. Presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, which also co-commissioned the work, the company performed three sold-out shows at the Boch Center Shubert Theatre. 

Both the choreography by Mark Morris and the score by Ethan Iverson — performed by a live chamber ensemble — evoke the blend of classical, vaudeville, avant-garde and contemporary musical traditions within the Beatles LP. The album is considered the first “concept” album in pop music. Iverson re-imagines seven Beatles compositions and intertwines them with five of his own pieces, each inspired by an element in the album.

Lightly dipped in psychedelia, “Pepperland” is a trip. With inventive, live music and buoyant, light-hearted choreography, performed by the company’s 15 superb dancers, “Pepperland” unfolds as a 65-minute suite of 12 movements. The music and movement turn the suite into a playful but profound dream. Together, the dancing and the music deconstruct, slow down and distill the core melodies and lyrics of the Beatles songs, releasing fresh poetry within the originals.

Attired in black, the chamber music ensemble performed at the front-row audience’s eye level rather than in a pit. Iverson, the pianist, teaches jazz piano at New England Conservatory. The marvelous baritone of vocalist Clinton Curtis was essential to almost every segment of the suite, and his clear diction made every word audible. Rob Schwimmer’s agile theremin added a riveting soprano voice to the finale. Colin Fowler on organ and harpsichord, Vinnie Sperrazza on drum kit, Sam Newsome on soprano sax and Jacob Garchik on trombone and piccolo were also indispensible to the richly textured music. 

A palette of acid-tinged pastels prevailed on stage, where the dancers were attired in Elizabeth Kurtzman’s tailored mod-era outfits and dark glasses. The set by Johan Henckens kept the focus on the dancers with its simple design. A sparkling, hedge-height horizontal structure, evoking a distant metropolis or mountain range, divided the back wall and floor as if they were sky and sea. Lighting by Nick Kolin bathed the dancers and the set in a soft spectrum of hallucinogenic crimson, lime and lavender tones.

The mesmerizing choreography by Morris was true to his taste for seemingly simple and playful gestures that build in complexity and surprise. In tune with the spirit of a marching band, the dancers coalesced into parade formations and angular shapes that quickly dissolved into circles, solos or intimate pairings. Physical humor was a constant, from dancers miming song lyrics to the improbable ending of a duet, as a small female dancer swung her male partner over her shoulders and strode offstage with him.

A lovely, melancholy adagio in music and dance accompanied “With a Little Help from My Friends,” as in duets and slow circles the dancers evoked the joining and solo turns that shape most lives.

One of the Iverson originals, “Wilbur Scoville,” expands the opening guitar lick of the LP into full-blown, brass-inflected blues steeped in a New Orleans-style laid-back tempo and complex rhythms. The piece is named for the pharmacist who discovered a scale to measure the heat of chili peppers. Matching the backbeat groove, the dancers exaggerate the weight of their movement, countering their slow motion with moments of rapid arpeggio footwork.

As a wordless, spare “Penny Lane” melded into a balletic “A Day in the Life,” with Schwimmer’s theremin injecting a haunting soprano, the dancers and musicians brought the work to a transcendent emotional peak. Then they concluded by reprising the title song of the LP and its refrain, “Sorry, but it’s time to go.”

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