Looking for a great evening of musical nostalgia, romance, and laughter? Then travel back in time to the days of “Doo-Wop” in Roger Bean’s sure-to-be-a-smash new musical Life Could Be A Dream, just opened at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre.

Bean is, of course, the writer-director of L.A. musical theater’s biggest success story of recent years, The Marvelous Wonderettes.  19 months at the El Portal. A successful big-stage transfer to the Laguna Playhouse. Nearly a year already (and still counting) off-Broadway. An even bigger stage production scheduled for Musical Theatre West next April. Los Angeles hasn’t seen anything like the Wonderettes in many a year, and lightning may very well strike again with Life Could Be A Dream.

Rather than imitate the Wonderettes proven “revue with between-song patter” format, Life Could Be A Dream dares to be a tad different by stringing its two dozen songs together with a bit more of a plot.  Teenage best friends Denny, Eugene, and Wally prepare over the course of an “exciting and eventful week in 1960” to enter (and hopefully win) a local radio competition to choose the most talented singing group in Springfield U.S.A.  As Monday turns to Tuesday turns to Wednesday, the threesome become a quartet (with the addition of auto mechanic Skip) and compete with their newest member for the heart of the lovely Lois, daughter of the group’s prospective sponsor.

Still, Bean’s cute, nostalgic plotline exists mainly to introduce some of the late-50s’ biggest “Doo-Wop” hits (including “Sh-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream),” “The Wanderer,” “The Great Pretender,” and “Duke Of Earl,” to name just a few) and to spotlight five of the most talented and charismatic triple threats in town.

From the moment Denny (Daniel Tatar) first hears the question “Do you have the new sound we’re looking for?” from Springfield’s hottest DJ, Ronnie “Bulls-Eye” Miller (the voice of David Engel), stars are in our young hero’s eyes and a plan is set in motion—to join with best buds Eugene (Jim Holdridge) and Wally (Ryan Castellino) in creating Denny And The Something-Or-Others (blank to be filled in at a later date) and win a one-year recording contract with Bulls-Eye Records.

The hitches begin to pop up right away, however, beginning with the fact that nerd extraordinaire Eugene can’t catch the beat, let alone dance.  “I’m a loser-doozer,” he moans.  Eager-beaver preacher’s son Wally might be able to advise Eugene on improving his moves, suggests Denny.  After all, “Church people are good at being judgey.”  All the while, there’s Denny’s off-stage mother who keeps interrupting on the intercom to put up roadblocks, including a demand that her son “Get A Job.” (Denny, Eugene, and Wally perform the song with trophy and broom handle “mikes” and a tennis racket “guitar.”) Wally’s first assignment as a group member is to head on over to the radio station and sign them up.

The arrival of tall, hunky, leather-jacketed auto mechanic Skip (Doug Carpenter) puts several ideas in the boys’ heads. First of all, Skip’s boss Big Eddie would be the perfect person to ask to become their sponsor and put up the $50 entrance fee. (Eugene: My mother has a sponsor! Denny: Not that kind of sponsor!) Second, who better to ask the auto shop owner to sponsor them than his lovely daughter Lois (Jessica Keenan Wynn), despite the fact that she rejected a still bitter Eugene back in 5th grade.   

Before long, the radio contest has become “the biggest thing to hit town since the Wonder Bread factory” and Lois is finding herself falling for Skip, a boy she had a crush on many years ago back in summer camp. (Skip, unfortunately, has no recollection of Lois.)  When Lois hears the boys’ gorgeous harmonies, she agrees to get her dad to be their sponsor—on one condition, that Denny And The Dreams add Skip and become a quartet.  

Though it only takes one note from Skip for ever-eager Wally to be convinced, Denny is none too happy when taller, sexier Skip takes it upon himself to sing lead in “Runaround Sue.” (“I’m just not sure if Skip should sing all the solos since it’s Denny And The Dreams.” he reminds his groupmates.)  Meanwhile, Skip has bigger problems on his mind, mainly the sad realization that he can’t get “too personal” with the boss’s daughter.  And he’s not the only one with a crush on Lois.  Wally serenades her with “Devil Or Angel,” Denny with “Earth Angel,” and Eugene with “Only You.”  Still, when Lois sings “I Only Have Eyes For You,” it’s Skip she’s singing to.

Will the course of true love run smoothly for Lois and Skip? Will Denny and the other Dreams be able to put their desire to win the contest above their longing for Lois?  What will happen to Skip and the group if Lois’s dad finds out about her romance with one of his employees? And finally, which group will prove victorious in the contest and sign that one-year contract with Bulls-Eye Records?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to answer these questions, but no matter. With performances as all-around splendid as these, and a couple dozen of the catchiest melodies to be heard this or any year, it’s all about the fun of getting to Life Could Be A Dream’s mini-concert grand finale.

The Marvelous Wonderettes four fabulous stars won the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Ensemble, and don’t be surprised if lightning strikes again for Denny And The Dreams.  All four guys are longtime StageSceneLA favorites, Carpenter for (most recently) Oklahoma!, Castellino for Mask, Holdridge for Assassins, Tatar for (among many other roles) The Kiss Of The Spider Woman.  Along with newcomer Wynn, they all give sensational performances in roles cleverly written and adroitly directed by Wonderettes creator Bean.  Carpenter is terrific as Skip, the bad(dish) boy every teen girl’s dad would warn his daughter about, singing “Unchained Melody” in a voice to ignite swoons.  Castellino couldn’t be better as the church-going boy every girl’s mom would give thumbs up to, especially when his distinctively nasal speaking voice turns silken as he sings about “The Glory Of Love.”  Holdridge’s entirely loveable Eugene is the very definition of nerdishness, gives new meaning to words like gawky and dweeby, and could induce a swoon or two himself when belting out “Only You.”  As Denny, Tatar continues his winning streak as one of our most appealing musical leads. It’s loads of fun to see this guy with all the right moves musically dueling with upstart Skip to be leader of the pack, and a treat for the ears every time Tatar’s tenor soars, as in “Earth Angel.”  As the girl all four of our heroes long for, Wynn is as cute as a button, as spunky as a cheerleader, and as golden-voiced as a 1960 pop star with a string of Number Ones.

Credit the cast’s gorgeous four and five-part harmonies to master musical director Michael Paternostro (musical arrangements by Bean and Jon Newton, additional musical arrangements by Steve Parsons) and their suave (and sometimes deliberately not-so-suave) moves to master choreographer Lee Martino. Tom Buderwitz’s set design is a marvelously detailed mid-20th Century Midwest basement, complete with wringer washing machine and roll-around vacuum cleaner (properties by Chuck Olsen), and an end-of-Act-One surprise.  Luke Moyer’s splendid lighting design moves from realistic to TV-variety-hour dazzling whenever the boys’ voices take flight, with a particularly luscious multi-colored underwater-esque effect during the “Lovin’ Lois Medley.”  Cricket S. Myers’ sound design is a faultless mix of prerecorded tracks and live voices (including occasional appearances by Denny’s mom on the intercom). Kudos to costume designer Shon LeBlanc for coming up with a couple dozen great early 60s shirts and slacks ensembles for the boys, and dresses, skirts, and pedal pushers for Lois.

With the Marvelous Wonderettes setting the standard, the sky’s the limit for Denny And The Dreams and Life Could Be A Dream.  Don’t be surprised if the show is still running a year from now. Rave reviews and enthusiastic word-of-mouth should guarantee full houses and standing ovations for months to come.

Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 7, 2009
                                                                             Photos: Michael Lamont

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