When Roger Bean’s Life Could Be A Dream opened at Los Angeles’s 99-seat Hudson Theatre last summer, I wrote, “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.” 

Guess what?  A year has rolled around and not only is Life Could Be A Dream still playing at the Hudson, the original cast has reunited for a bigger, brighter, faster-paced, even more entertaining production at the Laguna Playhouse.

In the jukebox musical tradition of Mamma Mia and All Shook Up, Life Could Be A Dream strings together a couple dozen hit songs with an original, albeit a bit wispy, plotline. Here, the tunes are Doo Wop hits made famous in the late-1950s/early ‘60s by artists like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Dion, the Reflections, and Gene Chandler—and the plot goes something like this: 

Teenage best friends Denny, Eugene, and Wally are preparing 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.

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, 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 a trophy sax, a broom handle mike 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 the taller, sexier auto mechanic 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 by five of the most talented and charismatic triple threats in town and two 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.

It’s been an amazing year for the real life Denny And The Dreams, several of whom have had additional big stage successes.  As for their work in Life Could Be A Dream, the fivesome scored an LA Weekly Award nomination for Best Ensemble and the LADCC Award itself in the same category.  Holdridge was nominated for the Ovation Award for his performances as Eugene and StageSceneLA named the quintet Ensemble Cast Of The Year.

The fivesome all do sensational work in roles cleverly written and adroitly directed by The Marvelous Wonderettes creator Bean, performances that have only richened in the year since their Hudson debut. Carpenter is even more 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 is better than ever 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 remains the very definition of nerdishness, giving new meaning to words like gawky and dweeby all the while inducing a swoon or two when belting out “Only You” in his amazing, Jersey Boys-ready pipes.  As Denny, Tatar’s infectious performance once again marks him as one of L.A.’s brightest and most appealing musical theater leading men. It’s even more fun than last year 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 for the girl all four of our heroes long for, Wynn has moved from unknown to award-winning leading lady—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 at the Playhouse is a big-stage expansion of the Hudson’s marvelously detailed mid-20th Century Midwest basement, complete with wringer washing machine and mid-fifties Hi-Fi set. Luke Moyer’s lighting design is even more splendid than before, moving from realistic to TV-variety-hour dazzling whenever the boys’ voices take flight, with a particularly luscious multi-colored effect during the “Lovin’ Lois Medley.” Cricket S. Myers’ sound design remains 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 some great period shirt-and-slacks ensembles for the boys, and an absolutely gorgeous (and almost entirely new) wardrobe of full-skirted 1950s dresses for Lois.

Tatar is associate director, Rebecca Michelle Green production stage manager, Jennifer Ellen Butler assistant stage manager, and Jim Ryan production manager.

Like Bean’s previous megahit The Marvelous Wonderettes, Life Could Be A Dream has gone on to have a life beyond its humble origins.  At the moment, Denny And The Dreamers are getting standing ovations for their stellar work at the Laguna Playhouse, and as to the future … the sky’s the limit!

The Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.

–Steven Stanley
July 13, 2010
                                                                               Photos: Ed Krieger

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