Life Could Be a Dream
May 18, 2013
The Rogue in Meadow Brook Theatre, Reviews, musicals

Writer-creator Roger Bean’s Life Could Be a Dream, a musical about young hopefuls aiming high, aims ironically low. Uninterested in being confined to a single artist or composer, but also unwilling to bend song selections to the complexities of plot or character, this jukebox musical uses a hackneyed high school–level problem as a thinly veiled excuse to lob close to two dozen 1960s hits at its audience. Now in its Michigan premiere at Meadow Brook Theatre, director Travis W. Walter’s catchy nostalgia vehicle answers Bean’s empty vessel for harmless, escapist entertainment the only way it can: with dueling pep and banality.

The show takes place where so many dreams begin: Mom’s basement. Recent high school grad Denny (Lucas Wells) is resisting all demands to get a job, instead scheming for stardom. His big break appears to be an upcoming local contest with a recording contract as the prize, but since singing groups are the trend, he needs help from reluctant Eugene (Mathew Schwartz) and goody-two-shoes Wally (Joe Lehman) to be saleable. The instant trio of “loser doozer” nerds, in need of sponsorship, reaches out to a local auto garage, which brings heartthrob mechanic/ringer Skip (Sam Perwin) and the boss’s daughter, Lois (Allison Hunt), into the story’s orbit. The introduction of A Girl means that only one type of plot can follow, and indeed, an early lopsided love pentagon gives way to a standard wrong-side-of-the-tracks tale of woe. If only the guys can reunite in time for the big contest, which the show never doubts they’ll win, despite their inexperience, insufficient rehearsal time, and incessant quibbling over who should have the most solos.

But this helium-filled placeholder of a plot is merely a delivery device for cheeky 1960s design and favorite doo-wop songs of the era, which ramp up the fun factor with lightness of their own. Brian Kessler’s huge set is not so much basement as lair, chock full of design details and miscellany that gets put to inventive use. Costumes by Corey Globke have a kind of Happy Days wholesomeness; the sense of Technicolor reverie is furthered by Reid G. Johnson’s abrupt light cues that snap into and out of each number. Music director and bandleader Daniel Feyer laces sugary upbeat drive through every song, whether in the guise of group practice or just the characters breaking into belted solo ballads.

The ensemble’s performance is similarly chipper, playing types as big and broad as a story this facile mandates. Although the gamboling energy suits the unpolished nature of a fledgling music group in progress, the show undermines its professionals by the same hand, forcing them to give amateur performances. A prime example is the choreography by Tyrick Wiltez Jones: during rehearsal numbers, the work overly concerns itself with creating, teaching, unifying, and biffing unimpressive dance moves, in contrast to an early off-the-cuff song that shows off the top-shelf playfulness and skill being otherwise withheld. Some of the production’s finest moments find the performers breaking through the confines to show their true skill, be it a quick dance flourish or a clear high note that shrugs off a deliberate adenoidal handicap. In this respect, Schwartz gives a standout turn; saddled with debilitating geekdom and stage fright, he comically winks at Eugene’s ineptitude, making the actor’s few shows of his true ability shine all the brighter. Hunt also shows surprising range, not only doubling as the nagging voice of Denny’s unseen mother, but also gently rebuffing the guys who don’t hold her romantic interest and growing into an unexpected buddy as well as patient teacher.

Ultimately, where Life Could Be a Dream fails to be compelling, it succeeds at being fun and lighthearted. Whether it earns its two-act structure, or two-hour running time, is doubtful, but this production’s two hours are hardly plodding when they’re filled with vigorous energy and music the viewer already knows and loves. Sometimes a show asks nothing more than to turn off one’s brain and hum along while a band of young dreamers gives it their all.

Life Could Be a Dream is no longer playing.
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