Mark Morris’ Non-Spicy ‘Pepperland’

Pepperland_“Pepperland” is the name of a suite that longtime Beatles producer George Martin wrote for their animated “Yellow Submarine” in 1968. Martin, who had devised the stirring string arrangements  behind “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby” turned in a sprightly, propulsive ditty that may have been his best composition in the Beatles canon not related to anything  written by Lennon-McCartney.

“Pepperland” is also the name of the Mark Morris Dance Group celebration of the band, which is having its premiere this week at the Kennedy Center, which co-commissioned it. But Martin’s suite doesn’t play a starring role; it’s not even included.

And while the adaptation by the Morris group adopts about half of the songs from the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” on the occasion of its 50th anniversary two years ago, it also has five pieces that have nothing to do with it that were written by Ethan Iverson, the former pianist and composer for the inventive jazz group The Bad Plus, who also arranged the Beatles material and performs with the backing MMDG Music Ensemble.

The performance itself is an explosion of color (thanks largely to Elizabeth Kurtzman’s costumes) in hues that seem borrowed from the “Yellow Submarine” palette. And Morris’ choreography is generally delightful, eking out exuberant, loose-limbed expression from his large, young company, even if he is a little too literal at times – tending to act out each action described in the as if an old music video.

But the hint that the music has been turned a little too inside out comes early when the opening “Sgt. Pepper” begins with the chord that closed the album. Out of that rumbling comes a minor-chord version of the familiar tune, sung with plenty of blue notes by baritone Clinton Curtis.

He fronts a partly visible ensemble that in addition to Iverson features two horns, keyboards, drums and a theremin. Nope, no guitars to represent a band that revitalized the three-guitars and drums format.

It’s fun to watch Rob Schwimmer play the theremin, an instrument mostly associated with sci-fi movies — done by moving one’s hands in the air in front of a box as if doing Tai Chi. The Beatles never used theremin in their music — the way the Beach Boys did in, say, “Good Vibrations” — but there is a case for its keening sound in “A Day in the Life” which alone seems to vindicate the musical meddling that precedes it.

In adapting “Sgt. Pepper” for dance, Morris does a funny bit introducing some of the figures of the 20th century that populate the album’s famous cover, from Shirley Temple to Karlheinz Stockhausen. There is good use of the album’s one outlier, George Harrison’s Indian immersion “Within You, Without You.”

There might have been no good reason to interpret for dance ditties like “Good Morning Good Morning” or “Getting Better.” But wouldn’t “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” been good fodder for a piece; wouldn’t “She’s Leaving Home” have been lovely?

“Penny Lane” was originally intended for the album, but was released as a single five months early. So it was included in an excessively descriptive segment that was nonetheless generally cheery. On stage as on the turntable, “A Day in the Life” carries the most gravitas, depicting the swirl we feel in a world where death comes suddenly and the news is nonstop, oh boy.

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