'Life' a nostalgic 'Dream' at Playhouse

Back in the middle and late 1950s, the woods were full of teen-age singing groups rehearsing in basements and garages, all determined to be the next Big Thing in pop music. A few of them (Buddy Holly and the Crickets, for instance) actually did so.

Creator-director Roger Bean, who gave the world (and the Laguna Playhouse) the "Marvelous Wonderettes" a few seasons ago, has come up with another musical adventure that will strike a particularly nostalgic chord with those of us who grew up in the '50s when the doo wop-rock 'n' roll sound came into prominence.

It's called "Life Could Be a Dream," the title taken from the lyrics of the hit single "Sh-Boom," and it's pure musical nirvana as it follows the former Crooning Crabcakes, the group the Wonderettes replaced, through their labor pains as a duet, a threesome, a quartet and, finally, a mixed-gender quintet.

There's Denny, the erstwhile leader (Daniel Tatar), his nerdish pal Eugene (Jim Holdridge) and their straight-arrow preacher's kid buddy Wally (Ryan Castellino), striving awkwardly to form a group called Denny and the Dreamers. It's a seemingly impossible mission, even without the constant interruptions from Denny's mother on the basement intercom.

Enter Skip (Doug Carpenter), the "head mechanic" at their prospective sponsor's auto repair shop, who's possessed of a voice Elvis would envy. And topping it off is the boss' daughter, Lois (Jessica Keenan Wynn), a prim young cutie who's lusted after by the original trio but who immediately hones in on Skip.

The latter pair soon take the spotlight in a cutely contrived plot about romance on the "wrong side of the tracks" and both lend superior vocal tones to the project. Carpenter excels in the title role of the "Duke of Earl" while Wynn — the youngest member of a Hollywood dynasty rivaling the Barrymores — beautifully renders the heartbreak-tinged "Lonely Teardrops."

Tatar, Holdridge and Castellino get their licks in with upbeat renditions of "Tears on My Pillow," "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer," among several others. The quintet wraps up the first act with a poignant "Unchained Melody," a reminder that this '50s song predated both the Righteous Brothers and "Ghost."

One of the highlights, and there are many, arrives midway through the first act when each of the original three declares his affection for Wynn's character with "Devil or Angel" (Castellino), "Earth Angel" (Tatar) and "Only You" (Holdridge). She responds by declaring "I Only Have Eyes for You" ("You" being Carpenter's borderline bad boy).

Tom Buderwitz's basement setting serves the show perfectly, as does Shon LeBlanc's costumes and Luke Moyer's light effects. Choreographer Lee Martino and musical director Michael Paternostro provide particularly impressive support as the performers gradually develop their styles and mesh into a terrific ensemble.

You don't have to actually remember these songs to get an enormous kick out of the show, though it certainly helps. Discovering them for the first time will serve as an inventive history lesson as to what the '50s were all about, musically.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Life Could Be a Dream"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 600 Laguna Canyon Road

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until Aug. 29

Cost: $40 to $70

Call: (949) 494-2787

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