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July 25, 2014

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Strings Attached: ‘Classical Mystery Tour’ adds full-scale orchestra to Beatles tribute

What: "Classical Mystery Tour."

When: 8 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts.

Tickets: $20, $40, $50.

Information: (702) 785-5000.

Thirty-six-year-old Jim Owen has been a fan of The Beatles almost his entire life.

And he grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., listening to classical music.

Today he combines his two great loves and produces "Classical Mystery Tour," a tribute to The Beatles featuring a full-scale orchestra.

Owen and his fellow Beatle tribute artists Tony Kishman (Paul McCartney), Tom Teeley (George Harrison) and Carmine Grippo (Ringo Starr) will perform Saturday at the Aladdin Theatre for the Performing Arts, their second year in a row at the venue.

"When playing Beatles music live and only using the technology of a couple of synthesizers, that doesn't fulfill my vision of what they should sound like," Owen said during a recent telephone interview from his Los Angeles home.

Owen plays the part of John Lennon in the production that has been touring the nation since 1996.

"It's difficult to go into a town and set up for shows of this size," Owen said. "The technical aspects of fortifying the sounds of the orchestra everybody has to have a mike is very difficult."

The orchestra changes from town to town, but getting the sound just right is a chore that follows Owen and his crew everywhere.

But the Aladdin, which has a seating capacity of about 7,000, is well equipped for the big sound that makes Owen's production stand out from hundreds of others that have flooded the entertainment market in recent years.

"It is one of the best-sounding rooms we have performed in," Owen said. Three years ago the Fab Four knock-off band performed at Mandalay Bay with the Las Vegas Philharmonic Orchestra. This year the 42-piece Glen Willow Symphony orchestra provides the backup music.

Songs that will be performed are some of the most popular recorded by The Beatles as a band or as solo artists, including "Yesterday," "Imagine," "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Hey Jude," "Penny Lane," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Lady Madonna" and many more.

"No doubt about it, 'Classical Mystery Tour' is the best version of the Beatle shows we have done, including 'Beatlemania,' " Owen said.

"Beatlemania" opened on Broadway in June 1977 and had a successful run until closing in 1979 after the real-life Fab Four won a lawsuit against the show's producers for using the band members' likeness without permission.

However, suits against other Beatles tribute acts and shows were subsequently dismissed, paving the way for "Classical Mystery Tour" and Las Vegas frequenters the Fab Four (poised to begin a three-week run at the Hilton), among countless others.

In 1981 the film "Beatlemania" was released, and several national and international touring companies were formed.

Teeley, Kishman and Owen were associated with various "Beatlemania" productions, Teeley on Broadway and in the film; Kishman and Owen with various touring companies.

Grippo, an actor/musician, performed as Ringo Starr with a number of Beatles tribute bands that toured the world.

Owen's production company performs one or two engagements a month around the country, and when he isn't with "Classical Mystery Tour," he and the other members of the cast perform a Beatles tribute show in Europe without an orchestra, "All You Need is Love."

"Actually, the bulk of our work is in Europe, not with an orchestra," Owen said. "The show we do in Europe is theatrical, like a biography of the Beatles, their life story told with live music and acting and actors portraying the Beatles' first manager, Brian Epstein."

But "Classical Mystery Tour" keeps the group busy enough. Owen says he never tires of The Beatles.

He was 8 when he first heard them and, as a result, decided to learn to play the guitar. His first professional performance as a Beatle was at 16, and at age 18 he began touring internationally with various productions of "Beatlemania," performing in Korea, China, Canada, Mexico and South America.

"My lifelong dream was to play Beatles music for sure," he said. "But there was a moment, back in '95, when I thought using an orchestra was a good idea. The idea just came up that it would be the thing to do."

Getting "Classical Mystery Tour" off the ground was not an easy task.

"I had to produce everything from scratch and I didn't have time to go out and write the parts for a full symphony orchestra," he said. "So I hired a guy to listen to Beatles' records over and over and write down every part for every instrument.

"It took months, but finally we rented a venue in the L.A. area and got the production up and running."

The first time Owen produced "Classical Mystery Tour" seven years ago, he said he was blown away by the sound.

"We were onstage with the orchestra, and when the sound came out, we just started looking at each other," he said. "We were amazed. It was incredible."

Following a performance in Los Angeles last year at the Performing Arts Center, a Los Angeles Times reviewer said the production was "more than just an incredible simulation ... the swelling strings and soaring French horn lines gave the live performance a high goose-bump quotient."

Owen says he doesn't mind the competition from countless other Beatles tribute groups around the world, nor does he believe the market is saturated.

"I personally enjoy tribute acts of any kind," he said. "But the best way to put this is, one time Neil Diamond saw our concert in Fort Worth. He had the night off, and after our show he came backstage and we got to meet him. One of our guys asked him what he thought of Neil Diamond tribute artists, and he said, 'As long as they are good, I like them.'

"There are a lot of Beatles bands out there, but I would say, very humbly, we are good."com

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