The Music of Your Youth

The subject of 1950 and 1960 harmonizing groups seems to be a popular one. We’ve seen this explored in a number of jukebox musicals, and from a number of different angles. There are musicals that explore the history of the writers, such as “Leader of the Pack”, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe”, or the upcoming “Baby Its You at the Pasadena Playhouse. There are musicals that explore the history of particular groups, such as “Jersey Boys”. There are musicals that combine the music of a number of artists in the story of a fictional group, such as the ever-touring “Forever Plaid” and “The Marvelous Wonderettes”. The author and director of the last show mentioned (“Marvelous Wonderettes”), Roger Bean, has a new show revisiting the era from a different gender and approach, “Life Could Be A Dream”, which we saw last night.

In “Marvelous Wonderettes”, Bean told the story of four high school friends and their life through a series of well-known songs, with bits of dialogue between each song. This was very similar to the approach taken in “Forever Plaid”. You can read my review of “Wonderettes” here. “Dream” is set in the same universe as “Wonderettes”, and focuses on four former members of the “Crooning Crabcakes” (the male choral group that couldn’t sing in Wonderettes). This time the story has a more significant set and plot, but is still a series of well-known do-wop songs strung together to illustrate the story and link together short bits of dialogue. The songs are treated more like performances, and are not integrated into the plot as well as one sees in other traditional musicals. That doesn’t seem to hurt the show–the songs are so well known and well loved that the audience just beams throughout the show. I could see this on the face of one white-haired grandma in the audience, who was just smiling throughout the entire show as the songs of her college years came back to her. Trust me, you do know these songs, which include 1960s standards such as “Sh Boom”, “Get a Job”, “Runaround Sue”, “Earth Angel”, “The Great Pretender”, and “Duke of Earl”. If you enjoyed Wonderettes, Plaid, or just grew up enjoying early 1960s music, you will enjoy this show.

The story is a relatively simple one. Denny (Daniel Tataræ) wants to win the recording contest prize from the radio station WOPR with his nerd-ish friend Eugene (Jim Holdridgeæ). Their friend Wally (Ryan Castellinoæ) works his way into the trio, and while registering the troupe, discovers they need a $50 fee. To get this fee they approach the owner of “Big Stuff Auto”, who sends his top mechanic Skip (Doug Carpenteræ) and his daughter Lois (Jessica Keenan Wynnæ). Skip ends up joining the band, and Lois convinces her dad to sponsor them. However, Skip and Lois fall in love, which leads Skip to get fired and run away… and the other boys in the band fall in lust with Lois. Will they get back together as a band and win the contest? Will Skip and Lois get back together? This is the stuff of which musicals are made! That’s not to say the story is a strong one or has thematic depth. It is clearly a plot contrivance to permit many great songs to be sung. But one doesn’t go to shows like this for the plot — one goes for the music and the performance. C’mon, was Mamma Mia as success due to its uplifting and endearing plot? Did Cats run for years because of the plot? Clearly not (although Cats didn’t run for the music either… it ran for the dance… but I digress).

The cast for this show is excellent–in fact, one could call it a dream cast (ducks and runs). I was mesmerized with Jessica Keenan Wynn (who I know I’ve read about before): she has such a beautiful expressive face I just couldn’t stop watching her whenever she was on stage. She was a strong singer, and had a personality that came through in her face (although at times her smile seemed overly forced, but that could be directorial). I was also impressed with Doug Carpenter who had this marvelous deep voice and an infectious charm. Daniel Tatar was excellent as always (we’ve seen him in a number of productions, including Last 5 Years at the Pasadena Playhouse and Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Havoc. But I could gush about all the leads: they were just wonderful singers and strong actors that just seems to broadcast their joy and happiness of doing this show. They were having fun with it, and through their enjoyment, the audience had a blast. It is worth going to see this show before it closes just for the cast alone: they could do this as a concert, and folks would come out happy.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

If the show had weaknesses, they were on the technical side. The sound design was by the very busy Cricket Myers. I found the sound quality variable: there were points where the voices were clear, and there were points where the voices were a bit muddy. This could just have been a technical problem with a particular microphone. The lighting design by Luke Moyer was more of a problem. This particular theatre doesn’t have room for follow spots, so moving mirror lighting is used. These lights were either mis-aimed or focused (or the actors were slopping in hitting their marks), because often actors wouldn’t be in the spot, or would be half-in and half-out. I had less of a problem when the moving mirrors weren’t used, although my daughter had difficulties with some of the color choices in the scenes where the projected images were used. Additionally, as each act started, the lighting came up in this weird stepped fashion instead of a smooth brightening–again, very odd. It boils down to the fact that at points in the show the lighting proved to be distracting, which lighting should never do: it should be neutral at worst, and enhance at best. The costumes by Valentino’s Costumes were adequately period, although I found (at times) Jessica Wynn’s shoes to be odd — either the high-heels seemed too high or too shiny (again, a distraction that wasn’t needed). The set design by Tom Buderwitz was as cluttered as one would expect a basement to be, with suitable period debris scattered around to establish the time and location.

Other meta-areas were good: The production was directed by Roger Bean and worked well, although if actors are getting off their marks as indicated above, he might want to freshen it. The choreography by Lee Martino was very good and reflected well movements of groups like this, with the additional clumsy humor that was required from the characters. The musical direction by Michael Paternostro, with arrangements by Jon Newton with additional arrangements by Steve Parsons, was quite good, and I was amazed at how they got such a good sounding band squeezed into those little boxes hanging from the top of the stage. The production stage manager was Brigid O’Brien, who wins the award for the best bio in the playbill.

Life Could Be A Dream continues at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre through December 27, 2009 (it has been extended a number of times). Tickets are available through Plays411; they are occasionally available through Goldstar Events, although they tend only to be put up the week before and sell out quickly. Even with the lighting problems, I recommend you see this show. You will enjoy it.

Dining Notes: Dinner before the show was at Zeke’s Smokehouse, always a good choice when going to theatres in Hollywood. Parking is easy, and the food is good and plentiful.

Upcoming Theatre: The upcoming week is a busy one, although not in a theatrical sense. Come visit us in Perris on Veterans Day (Wednesday) at a Day Out With Thomas at Orange Empire Railway Museum. Next weekend brings two concerts: Erin is going to the TMBG concert at UCLA, while we will attending Havdalah with Peter Yarrow at the American Jewish University. On November 22 at 2pm we return to REP East Playhouse for “M*A*S*H”, followed by the next installment of Meeting of Minds (Frederick Douglass (Ernie Hudson), Empress Tz’u-hsi (France Nuyen), Cesare Baccaria (Joe Mantegna), and Marquis de Sade (Richard Gilliland)). Thanksgiving weekend is currently open; however, it might be taken by a shift of our production for the following weekend (“Baby Its You” at the Pasadena Playhouse, December 5 at 8pm… which, by the way, features the actress who played Marie Antoinette), due to the fact I head out the morning after we see it for ACSAC in Hawaii. That same weekend (December 3, 4, 5) also brings “The Taming of the Shrew” at Van Nuys HS — we’ll likely be going to the Friday, December 4 performance. I fly out to Hawaii for ACSAC on 12/5 (hint: registration is now open and we have a great technical program — so come to the conference).I return 12/12 (and, alas, this is why we can’t see Equus at LA Valley College the weekends of 12/3-5 and 10-12). December 20 brings “Mary Poppins” at the Ahmanson. We’ll be going to the movies on Christmas Day (as well as having Chinese food), and the likely movie is “Nine – The Musical”. As always, I’m looking for suggestions for good shows to see, especially if they are on Goldstar or LA Stage Tix.

Disclaimer: In light of the upcoming rules, you should know that nobody paid me anything to write this review. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.