By John Quinn
A “jukebox musical” is always a hop and a skip down memory lane. Playwright Roger Bean has been rather successful weaving together popular songs of a period with a barely-there plot. “Life Could Be a Dream,” the nostalgic romp at Meadow Brook Theatre, is like the flipside to Bean’s “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” brought to us earlier this season courtesy of The Box Theater.
In “Wonderettes,” four girls are last-minute entertainers at their prom when the Springfield High glee club’s lead singer is suspended. In “Dream,” we meet some of those gleeks. Two years after the fateful prom, we find ourselves in the basement of Denny Varney (Lucas Wells) where he and two other, erstwhile Crooning Crabcakes, Eugene (Mathew Schwartz) and Wally (Joe Lehman), are prepping for a comeback as Denny and the Dreamers. Their dream? Win the “Dream of a Lifetime” talent contest for a one-year contract with Bull’s-eye Records. The catch? The slackers can’t raise the entry fee without a sponsor.
They get an audition with the owner of a local garage, but “Big Earl” sends his head grease monkey, Skip Henderson (Sam Perwin), instead. It just so happens that Earl also sends his daughter Lois (Meadow Brook stalwart Allison Hunt) to add a feminine perspective. The boys are seriously smitten with Lois, but she only has eyes for Skip. She urges the trio to become a quartet.
If the plot is the basic “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again for a happy ending,” we can still credit playwright Bean with a skillful assembly of some two dozen Doo-Wop hits. We can credit director Travis W. Walter, MBT’s artistic director, with sharp assembly of a vocally talented cast, one capable of rendering the close harmonies characteristic of the genre. Individually the voices are top-rate, especially Sam Perwin and his rich baritone. It is ironic that “Wally” bemoans that his “mouth hurts when I sing down there,” but Joe Lehman has no problem at either the bottom or top of his wide range. Allison Hunt’s powerful soprano shines in one of the best songs of the era, “I Only Have Eyes For You.” Guided by music director Daniel Feyer, who also plays keyboards in the off-stage quintet, the solos are excellent, but sometimes in group numbers, the lead buries the harmony.
Scenic designer Brian Kessler has created a memorable suburban basement, even without the use of knotty pine paneling. It’s been filled with mid-century kitsch, a lot of which gets used as improbable props. But the crowning touch is Kessler’s use of the soaring space above the stage; allowing for two narrow, basement windows through which the audience can see the feet of characters approaching or leaving the “house.” Too cool, Daddy-o!
Corey Globke created a deep wardrobe for this production, with multiple costumes for each character, which recreate the late ’50s look without caricature. It is a shame, though, that wireless microphone battery packs are so cumbersome.
Choreographer Tyrick Wiltez Jones has taken his theme from one of Skip’s lines; he characterizes his colleagues’ groove moves as looking like “Jerry Lewis taught the Three Stooges how to dance.” Thus the guys are a little footloose. It’s appropriate, but contrasts with Reid G. Johnson’s lighting. The warm glow of reality changes to a darker, cooler ambiance, highlighted by follow spots, during the numbers. The result is very much a polished, “onstage” look. Yet more than one actor got off on the wrong foot, and I don’t know if it was by accident or design.
In its 2009 debut, “Life Could Be a Dream” took home three LA Drama Critics Circle Awards, including Production of the Year. Justly so; the musical is an infectiously gleeful crowd pleaser. Catching “Dreams” in the same season as “The Marvelous Wonderettes” demonstrates that too much of a good thing doesn’t apply to pop music.
‘Life Could Be a Dream’
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Rd., Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through May 19. 1 hour, 55 minutes. $31-$40. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com