Just imagine you could turn back time and spend two hours with one of the most influential music superstars of the 20th Century. Just imagine that this pop music legend is John Lennon, a month or so before his tragic murder at the age of forty.  Just imagine that during these two hours, you could hear Lennon perform live and in person several dozen of his greatest compositions, backed by some of the best rock musicians in the business.  Just imagine that Lennon would, between songs, share stories about his life—from his childhood in working class Liverpool to his rise to superstardom in the mid-60s to the controversies which surrounded him during the turbulent Vietnam years to the happiness he eventually found as husband and father.  Just imagine that all this could actually take place in an intimate setting, say in one of L.A.’s finest 99-seat theaters.


If you can imagine all this, then you will have some idea of just how amazing an experience Just Imagine, a guest production at the NoHo Arts Center, is. It’s just you and about ninety-eight other John Lennon fans, a four-piece backup band, and the legend himself.  No wonder Just Imagine has become such a buzzed-about hit.  There’s truly never been anything like it.

Part of you knows that it’s not really John Lennon up there on stage.  Part of you is aware that John’s songs are being sung (and his life story told) by Tim Piper, the multitalented Lennon lookalike/soundalike who has made a career of keeping the legend alive.  But an even bigger part of you oh-so willingly suspends disbelief, choosing to imagine yourself with none other than the real John.  No wonder audiences are cheering, telling their friends about Just Imagine, and coming back for more.

Piper starts the evening out with an electric rendition of “Revolution,” and a more appropriate opening number he could not have picked.  If ever a pair of songwriters and a quartet of musicians revolutionized music, it was John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and The Beatles. To anyone growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, there was music before the Beatles, and music after, period.


As video images are projected onto the big screen behind the band, John (I know it’s really Tim, but I’m going to call him John from now on) sings his life in song, beginning with film footage of the WWII England into which he was born—during a German air raid. A pair of songs recall his mother Julia Lennon.  In “Mother,” John rages against the woman he picked to live with upon his parents’ divorce, only to have her turn her five-year-old son over to her sister Mimi for rearing.  A more tender “Julia” shows a John willing to forgive the Mum whose loss came far too early in John’s life.  (He was only seventeen when she was struck by a car driven by an off-duty policeman and killed.)

It goes without saying that what we the audience have come to hear (and hear about) are the songs that made John Lennon and The Beatles household words the world over.  John talks about the time he and his mates spent in Hamburg (with great video footage setting the scene), time during which he not only “grew up” but (along with childhood friend Paul McCartney) began to write and perform the songs that would eventually bring him international fame.

Around that time, two early Beatles (Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best) left the group, to be replaced by George Harrison and Ringo Starr.  (Comparing Starr to Best, John tells us, “Ringo wasn’t a better drummer than Pete, but he was a better Beatle.”)   The foursome soon became the talk of Great Britain, and it wasn’t long before Beatlemania crossed the Atlantic and became a worldwide phenomenon.


Actual footage of Ed Sullivan introducing the Beatles’ first appearance on his weekly variety show (interspersed with images of screaming fans) accompanies live performances of the best of those early Beatles hits, including “She Loves You” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” though John doesn’t sing that distinctive midsection of “A Hard Day’s Night.”  Why?  “That was Paul’s part,” he tells us.

Just Imagine is a great primer in Beatles/John Lennon history. We hear about their monster success, John’s frustration at performing live before fans whose screams drowned out the music (and prompted the Beatles’ decision to stop touring), and of course the group’s eventual breakup.  Mention of Yoko Ono brings a hiss or two, but as we hear John talk about her, we realize that whatever our preconceptions about Yoko may have been, she was indeed not just his muse but his soul mate as well.

Hit after hit gets performed.  There’s “We Can Work It Out,” “Help,” “Come Together,” “Strawberry Fields,”  “The Magical Mystery Tour,” “I Am The Walrus,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),”  “Cold Turkey,” and “Instant Karma” (among many others).   Each song has its own story to tell—John’s heroin addiction, the eighteen-month “Lost Weekend” he spent away from Yoko in the arms of personal assistant May Pang, the birth of John and Yoko’s son Sean in 1975, and John’s discovery of a new life as a househusband, becoming for Sean the father than his own had never been.  (“Beautiful Boy,” dedicated to Sean, provides one of the evening’s most moving moments.)


It should be obvious by now that Just Imagine is much more than just a “what if?” John Lennon concert.  It is two hours spent with a friend, and Piper’s performance as the pop music legend is nothing short of brilliant. He comes well prepared for the role, having been performing Beatles and John Lennon music for most of his career—in Beatles Tribute Bands and TV movies as well. In Just Imagine, though, Piper is much more than just a celebrity impersonator. It’s almost as if we are seeing him channeling the real John Lennon. No wonder it’s so easy tobelieve.

Credit for the evening’s success goes also to director/set designer Steve Altman, whose experience as a musical theater performer and stand-up comedian has helped shape what is both musical theater and one man standing tall on stage.  Not that Piper is alone up there. He’s backed by as sensational a band as you’re likely to find—his musical director brother Greg Piper on bass guitar, Don Butler on lead guitar, Don Poncher on drums, and Morley Bartnoff on keyboard. The five performers are ably aided and abetted by sound designer Jonathan Zenz and the NoHo Arts Center’s state-of-the-art sound system.  (The volume is loud and the notes are crystal clear). Luke Moyer’s lighting once again proves him one of our finest SoCal designers.

I never heard the Beatles perform live, though I could have. They played the Hollywood Bowl the summers I was fourteen and fifteen—but teenage me was into The Supremes, Lesley Gore, and Petula Clark.  (Hmmm…) Still, I can’t hear those early Beatles’ songs without being transported back in time. (My senior year at Samohi comes back in an instant whenever I hear a track from Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.)  The Beatles stopped performing live the year after their second Bowl concert, and Lennon’s last full-length concert was in 1972.


For this reason alone, Just Imagine is a bona fide event, a chance to hear the concert John Lennon never gave but the one we wish he had. Thanks to Tim Piper, it’s easy to believe we’re actually there if we Just Imagine.

NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
December 10, 2009

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