He's having fab time playing John Lennon

Steve Landes can't remember a time when the Beatles were not a big part of his life.

The Philadelphia native was too young for the group's original fan base when the Fab Four took America by storm on Ed Sullivan's Sunday night TV variety show on Feb. 9, 1964.

"But my parents and older sister were fans," he said. "They had the music on in the house all the time when I was growing up. I inherited the T-shirt and poster from my sister. When I was 17, I went to New York to audition for 'Beatlemania' on Broadway. I thought it was so cool that these guys got to pretend to be the Beatles every night and get paid for it."

Landes got in on the tail end of the show, then after it closed in 1982, began making the rounds as an actor open to anything. But in 1998, because of his "Beatlemania" track record, he got the invitation to join "Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles," considered one of the best Beatles theatrical re-creations since it was launched as a California cover band in the late 1970s. The group was even invited to perform last year in the Beatles' home territory of Liverpool — including the famous Cavern Club — for the city's 800th anniversary.

"I jumped at it and never looked back," said Landes, who has been suiting up as John Lennon for the past 12 years. "I've been a lifelong Beatles fan. Now I get to live it. I get to be one every night."

Landes will be in Wichita with "Rain" this week for two performances as the final offering of the season for Theater League. He'll be joined onstage by Joey Curatolo as Paul, Joe Bithorne as George and Ralph Cadstelli as Ringo. The four channel the Beatles — in spot-on looks and sound — for about 30 songs "From Ed Sullivan to 'Abbey Road' " (their final album). They also pay tribute to solo John Lennon with "Imagine."

All four will also be joined by co-creator, manager, keyboardist and percussionist Mark Lewis, who is often affectionately dubbed "the fifth Beatle."

"It's a little awkward for me because the Beatles is really known only as four guys. I'm not there onstage when they begin. I'm behind a curtain. But when 'Sgt. Pepper's' begins (about 20 minutes in), the curtain pulls away and I become part of them to prove that, yes, we are doing all the studio music live," said Lewis, who provides the orchestral and exotic instruments as well as sound effects. "I take it as a great compliment to be considered the fifth Beatle."

Lewis helped form and shape the early group in Los Angeles when it was a bar band called Reign, which found a lucrative niche playing Beatles covers while writing its own original music.

"We had no intention of being a Beatles tribute band. We only did it to make money while waiting to record our first album," he said. "But Dick Clark used us in his (1979) film, 'Birth of the Beatles,' and praised us as authentic. Suddenly, we found ourselves playing better and better venues. The original career never quite happened and now, three decades later, we are at the top of our game."

If you go

'rain: A tribute to the beatles'

What: Final touring show of season for Theater League

Where: Century II Concert Hall

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday

How much: Tickets: $39-$49, available at WichitaTix at 316-219-4849 or www.wichitatix.com.