Roger Bean, writer-director of the long-running musical "The Marvelous Wonderettes," now playing off-Broadway, is back in town with his newest entertainment, "Life Could Be a Dream," at the Hudson Mainstage.

If you're in the mood for Eugene O'Neill, give this show a pass. However, if you want unapologetically escapist entertainment, superbly rendered in every particular, this is your ticket. "Dream" is so frothy it floats.

Like "Wonderettes," "Dream" features a small cast of lovable characters who group together under a flimsy but serviceable pretext to bop their hearts out and sing vintage rock 'n' roll standards in heavenly harmony.

Set in 1960, "Dream" employs the familiar "Let's put on a show" scenario to fuel the fun. Denny (Daniel Tatar), a brash loser with a big ego, teams with his nudnik buddy Eugene (Jim Holdridge) to compete in a radio-sponsored talent contest for a one-year recording contract. The duo soon becomes a quartet that includes Wally (Ryan Castellino), a sweet preacher's son, and Skip (Doug Carpenter), a sexy grease monkey from the wrong side of the tracks. When beautiful Lois (Jessica Keenan Wynn), daughter of their wealthy sponsor, takes over as the boys' rehearsal coach, romantic entanglements follow.

Does true love prevail? Natch. Do our heroes achieve their dream? You betcha. Does this jukebox musical deliver value for your nickel? Without a doubt.

Tom Buderwitz's delightful basement set is perfectly in period, as are Shon LeBlanc's authentic costumes. Luke Moyer's lighting adds extra oomph to the torch numbers, and Cricket S. Myers' sound design is unobtrusively precise.

Bean smoothly stages his own work, but he has many hands to thank for this production. Bean collaborated with Jon Newton on the terrific musical arrangements (Steve Parsons contributed additional arrangements and orchestrations), and Michael Paternostro, who is shaping up to be one of the best musical directors in town, elicits heavenly harmonies from his powerhouse cast. As for the performers, they are uniformly, well . . . dreamy. See them while you can.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"Life Could Be a Dream," Hudson Mainstage, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 27. $40. (323) 960-4412. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

The song and dance of life

A bittersweet pang underlies the sly charm of "Closer Than Ever" at GTC Burbank, and therein lies its personalized reach. In presenting Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire's 1989 revue as the penultimate show of its final season, Lodestone Theatre Company scores a communicative triumph.

"Closer" consists of 23 self-contained songs that thematically range from dating to divorce to midlife crises. Director Chil Kong's witty staging grabs us at the opening "Doors," effectively realized in set designer Luis Delgado's sliding portals. Each subsequent number unfolds like its own one-act play. Interpretive invention is unforced -- the child-care negotiations of "Fandango" involve female partners, the girl talk of "Three Friends" sports a male participant, and so forth.

The wonderful Erin Quill inhabits "Life Story" with equal parts Margaret Cho and Debra Monk, while Kong makes "One of the Good Guys" a simply self-evident statement. Sharline Liu delights as secret swinger "Miss Byrd," and the resonant Paul Nakauchi risks overselling "If I Sing" to nail its emotional truth.

Nakauchi, Kong and DT Matias invest "Fathers of Fathers" with thrilling directness, and co-choreographer Blythe Matsui finds fresh layers in cabaret chestnut "Patterns." Their estimable work receives staunch support from EJ Arriola, Jully Lee, Jiehae Park and Miley Yamamoto. Under Akira Nakano's fine musical direction, the choral sweep turns such group items as "The March of Time" into showstoppers.

The poignancy in dedicating the production to co-choreographer Samuel RedRunningbear Savage, who died while the show was in rehearsals, outweighs certain swing choir elements. Such heartfelt intimacy counters fleeting quirks to float this ingratiating revival.

-- David C. Nichols

"Closer Than Ever," GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 30. $20. (323) 993-7245. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

A careful reading of the dark Bard

It is perhaps inevitable that "The Merchant of Venice" will provoke audiences, though the Festival Amphitheater production in Garden Grove approaches it with admirable evenhandedness. Shakespeare Orange County briskly presents the Bard's dark-tinged comedy of romance, economic necessity and intolerance.

The principal negative issue remains anti-Semitism, as directed toward Jewish moneylender Shylock (an imposing Michael Nehring). Technically a supporting role, the character is critical and not just for providing the funds that title merchant Antonio lends to nobleman Bassanio so he can woo wealthy Portia, the play's heroine.

What often rankles is how Shylock goes from object of abuse to affronted avenger. Credit Nehring and director Thomas F. Bradac that this too-often overblown figure emerges with his dignity intact and motives understandable, most vivid in the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech and courtroom harangue.

He has a worthy opponent in Carl Reggiardo's silken-voiced Antonio, while real-life married pair Ryan and Kim Shively subtly exploit their natural affinity to give Bassanio and Portia's romance noteworthy urgency. Stephanie Robinson and Greg Ungar make acerbic servants, with Daniel Tobin's word-pointing Moroccan prince, Alyssa Bradac's loopy Lancelot Gobbo and Jack Messenger's sonorous Venetian ruler typifying a proficient troupe.

Technical values are restrained but effective, especially costume designer Kathryn Wilson's beautiful array of Elizabethan attire. Director Bradac cannot keep the narrative plot convolutions from seeming anticlimactic after Antonio's trial, and despite the care he takes, the text and its antiquated Renaissance Christian attitudes can still raise hackles. Still, it's an uncluttered, wholly respectable reading, especially recommended to first-timers and students.

-- David C. Nichols

"The Merchant of Venice," Shakespeare Orange County at Festival Amphitheater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. 8:15 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (7:30 p.m. pre-show). Ends Aug. 22. $32. (714) 590-1575. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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