It sounds like a game: What do you get when you have six instruments and one of them is a theremin?
That's the musical setup for Ethan Iverson's score for "Pepperland," a re-envisioning of the Beatles' iconic concept album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The Mark Morris Dance Group brought the production, which features Beatles songs and new compositions, to Northrop auditorium on Saturday.
The theremin, an analog electronic instrument that sounds a bit like a ghost moaning in the attic, was undoubtedly the star player. Keyboardist Iverson's harpsichord sound was a close second. The show featured only one singer — Clinton Curtis. He performed well, but the music seemed to want another voice to be added to his.
It was a vivid performance, with its bright costumes of electric blue, fire engine red and banana yellow, designed by Elizabeth Kurtzman. These were dramatically illuminated by Nick Kolin's impressive lighting design. Mark Morris' choreography, meanwhile, was often slick, textured and showy as the dancers boldly traversed Northrop's stage.
In some cases, the original tunes seemed to decay. As the music wandered into murky directions, the choreography seemed to be searching for something.
"When I'm 64," for example, started out with an old-timey Scott Joplin feel. Three dancers linked arms and moved in synchronicity. As more dancers joined them and the line got longer, the dancers fell out of step as the instruments grew out of sync. Morris ended the piece with pairs of couples carrying one another off stage. Both music and the movement illuminated the message of longing for a partner who will stay by our side, even when life gets messy and complicated and bodies start to fail us.
There was quite a bit of acting out the songs, often with a twist. "Penny Lane," for example, started out with the dancers pantomiming the imagery of the lyrics. Just when the miming began to feel a bit silly, the movement shifted. The dancers opened up into a giant circle, enveloping a dancer in the center. That dancer was male, but in the last moments, he was replaced by a female dancer, speaking perhaps to the need to center women's perspectives.
As a whole, the show searched for 21st century meanings in the iconic music of the 1960s. The commendable score and the precise movements teased out the songs, jumbled them up with new inspirations, and pieced them together to speak to our present world.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis critic and arts journalist.