For people who lived through World War II, December 7, 1941, is emblazoned in memory as "a day that will live in infamy." The date of John F. Kennedy's assassination -- November 22, 1963 -- is similarly fixed in the mind of anyone old enough to remember the news bulletins of that tragic day. To this day, people who remember these events can tell you exactly where they were when they heard the news. Both events serve as generational markers, a common history shared by the people living in a certain place and time.
For lifelong Beatles' fans, December 8, 1980, holds the same power. On that date, in front of the Dakota apartments in New York City, Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon to death just a few hours after asking for his autograph. With the violent death of the Beatle who worked so hard for peace, the spirit of the '60s seemed to be truly dead.
Almost 20 years to the day after Lennon's death, some of the spirit and magic of the Beatles will return, if only for an evening, as the Classical Mystery Tour comes to town for a single performance with the Spokane Symphony in the Star Theatre at the Spokane Arena. The Beatles were one of the first rock 'n' roll acts to incorporate symphonic arrangements into their songs, thanks to the work of producer George Martin, but the original Fab Four never played the songs live. By the time the most imaginative arrangements were created, the group had stopped touring and worked exclusively in the studio in order to liberate themselves from the limitations of music that could be reproduced onstage. The thought of presenting those songs with a full orchestra behind the band is what motivated Jim Owen to put the show together.
"I had a dream to do this," says Owen, who spent several years touring with the cast of Beatlemania but was looking for a different way to pay tribute to the legendary band. When he first got the idea of working with a full orchestra, Owen went straight to the source of the original arrangements. "I called London initially and said that I wanted arrangements of the movie scores, but they declined because Sir George Martin might want to use them in his own public appearances. So, I worked with a music professor in California to transcribe the orchestral arrangements."
Owen's original concept for the show focused on the later works of the Beatles, with songs drawn primarily from the Sergeant Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and Abbey Road albums. "At first we thought, 'Why play early songs with the orchestra sitting there doing nothing?' " Owen explains. "But after a few shows, we felt it was incomplete without the early songs. So, we let the orchestra sit for a number or two, but they have plenty to do through the rest of the show." Even when the orchestra members aren't playing along with the band, they find a way to take part, Owen says. "Oh, yeah, it's not unusual to have the orchestra members sing along or sway in their chairs or even get up and dance at the end."
Owen began his Beatle tribute career while still in his teens back in his hometown of Huntington Beach, Calif., and later moved on to his role as George Harrison in the international touring company of Beatlemania. The opportunity led him down a different career path than he had originally planned, as he postponed and eventually abandoned his pre-dental studies at USC.
"Okay, I'd be an orthodontist now," he confesses with a laugh. "That's where I was headed. But something kept drawing me back to performing."
After many years of portraying George Harrison, Owen has recently switched roles; he now performs as John Lennon. Is it tough to change from the quiet Beatle to the highly quotable Lennon? "It hasn't been hard," he says. "All of the songs are in my head. I've been hearing them since I was a kid. Any of the guys in the group could probably play any one of the characters."
The other members of the Classical Mystery Tour cast are all Beatlemania alumni. Singer-songwriter Tony Kishman takes the part of Paul McCartney, a role he's been performing since 1979 with Beatlemania, Legends in Concert, and shows in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. He has also worked with the classic rock group, Wishbone Ash, and has done a solo album of his own songs. On the drums, Chris Camilleri assumes the persona of Ringo Starr. He, too, began performing in Beatles tributes in 1979, appearing that year at the Beatlefest National Convention. He has worked with many well-known rock artists, including Yoko Ono, along with a stint touring the world with Beatlemania.
The newest member of the band is David Brighton, who portrays George Harrison. Brighton played guitar with the rock band Quiet Riot during the 1980s and formed his own band in the early 1990s. He joined the international touring company of Beatlemania in the mid '90s and has performed with a variety of Beatles revues ever since.
This is the fourth year that the Classical Mystery Tour has traveled around the country, recreating the music of the Beatles with help from symphony orchestras, and Owen says this one is different from other Beatles tribute shows. "Beatlemania was a different style of show, with a heavier emphasis on the visual," he says. "This is more of a musical tribute. The focus is on the music."
The band members didn't wear any special costumes at first, but that has since changed. "The original concept was to wear not Beatle costumes but clothing that was somewhat suggestive of the Beatles," Owen explains. "But then some people suggested costumes, so we did it, and it really added to the show." Still, the band members emphasize authentic musical reproduction, not physical mimicry.
A big part of that musical presentation rests with the Spokane Symphony. The Star Theatre is an unusual location for a symphony appearance, but this show is part of the orchestra's commitment to reach a broader audience than might come to a typical show at the Opera House. "We have a talented band of musicians who are good at playing all different kinds of music, not just Beethoven," says Spokane Symphony Executive Director John Hancock. "It's important for us to meet new listeners, so we try to bring in diversified programs." Hancock hopes that shows like the Classical Mystery Tour will expand the public's concept of who the symphony players are.
The band members of the Classical Mystery Tour aren't trying to change anyone's concept of the Beatles or their music, but they like to share their admiration of the Beatles with new listeners as well as those who remember when the songs themselves were new. Jim Owen runs out of superlatives when describing the Beatles' music and the group's cultural influence.
"The Beatles are head and shoulders above the rest because they've written not only some great songs, but one great song after another, and they did it in different styles. They wrote their own music, which was not common when they first started. Also, their personalities stand out. People identified with one or another of them, and all four had unique personalities. People wanted to know what made them tick, so they had quite a voice in the media to promote their causes. People wanted to know what they thought about issues and events."
For those who had a case of Beatlemania back in the 1960s -- before it was a Broadway show -- the show can be its own magical memory tour. "The show is so nostalgic, very emotional," says Owen. "It brings people back to where they were when they first heard the music." He understands that kind of audience response completely, he says. "During almost every show, there's a point where the guys in the band get emotional ourselves."
One emotion that's not known is how the surviving ex-Beatles feel about this show and all of the other tribute shows built around their music. None of the band members has ever met any of the originals, so all they can draw from are press reports and speculation. Owen is philosophical about it, though. "We just hope they'd enjoy what we do."
& & & lt;i & The Classical Mystery Tour joins the Spokane Symphony on Thursday, Dec. 7, at 7:30 pm in the Spokane Arena's Star Theatre. Tickets: $20-$35. Call: 325-SEAT. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &