WINTER PARK — When someone mentions the 1960s, most people are likely to recall a highly turbulent era, especially in the latter years.
Political assassinations, anti-war protests, and the flower child movement all rocked the nation from 1967 until the 1970s arrived, and it was a time when it felt like the nation was being torn apart.
What might no longer be remembered is that the decade didn’t start that way, and the early 1960s still felt a lot more like the 1950s. The spirit of youthful rebellion, social change and rejection of traditional norms was still years away. That was reflected in the music as well. If by the late 1960s The Rolling Stones were singing “Sympathy For The Devil,” in the early 1960s teens were still listening to Paul Anka singing “Puppy Love” and Mark Dinning crooning “Teen Angel.”
That era is captured in Roger Bean’s jukebox musical “Life Could Be a Dream,” which is set in the year 1960, in the basement of Denny Harney, a teen with ambitions to become a hit doo wop singer.
Bean, who also created the hit musical “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” uses songs from the 1950s as he sets out to capture the sense of innocence still going strong as the 1960s began. The show, which had its premiere at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood in August 2009, just opened for a run at The Winter Park Playhouse — which uses a stellar, first-rate cast of singers to emphasize not only the wonderful doo wop songs that brought groups like the Coasters to fame, but also the show’s considerable humor.
In fact, the performers are so good that you get the feeling they’re much funnier than the original script seemed on paper. Who would have thought that a one-off line about the theater audience patrons sitting in their underwear would get funnier every time it was repeated?
Denny is a teen who knows his mission in life. First, it’s to become recognized as a talented pop singer, and second, it’s to figure out a way to avoid his nagging mama’s insistence that he get a job and go off on his own.
Mom is always calling on the intercom, checking to see if the boys need some sandwiches, asking for the umpteenth time if Denny has a job, and reminding him that’s never going to become the next Pat Boone or Perry Como.
Denny’s sidekick is Eugene, the kind of kid for whom the term “nerd” was invented, with his oversized glasses and geeky clothes. Denny has ambition to spare, while Eugene is terrified of two things: performing in front of an audience – and women.
But they can both sing. They enlist their buddy Wally, the local preacher’s son, form The Dreamers, and start crooning 50s hits like “Sh Boom” in beautiful harmony
Best of all, there’s a singing contest coming up, and the boys decide to enter, convinced they can wow the audience if they practice long enough.
There are problems, though. First, the boys are amateurs and their early dance moves are, well, not exactly the stuff that “American Idol” episodes are made from. Initially, they have a long way to go, although those goofy dance moves are hilarious to watch.
Plus, they have an even bigger problem: coming up with the $50 entry fee, which wasn’t exactly small change in those days. And Denny needs to make sure mom doesn’t find out he’s spending his days practicing for a singing contest rather than out hunting for a job.
Wally gets an idea: one of the parishioners at his father’s church owns an auto repair shop. What if they could convince him to sponsor them and put up the $50? Wally reaches out to the town bigwig, who is interested. But rather than show up himself to hear the boys sing, he sends one of his trusted workers, Skip, his chief mechanic, and his teen daughter, Lois.
It turns out to be a masterstroke for the boys: they discover Skip can sing beautifully and convince him to join the band, and Lois helps them not only improve their dance moves, but also convinces dad to become their sponsor.
Everything appears to be going along just ducky …. until Lois admits she’s got a wild crush on Skip, who is now fearful that if his boss finds out, he’ll be fired. Dilemmas ensue.
As you can imagine, the challenges this gang face don’t have much to do with the anti-war movement, psychedelia or social rebellion. Their top concerns are finding true love, and getting a chance to show the world that yes, they’ve got some talent too. It’s an intriguing question to wonder what the year 1960 would have been like if there had been an Internet and a YouTube channel for them to express themselves on, but alas, no such luck.
This high-energy production really soars when the boys sing in harmony together, and the performers seem to be having a blast playing these characters: Bert Rodriguez has fun as the fiercely determined leader of the group who is sure that he’s destined to become a pop sensation rather than work at the local Piggly Wiggly like Wally does.
Michael Scott Ross has some of his most hilarious scenes when Eugene is around Lois – yikes, a girl! – or when he contemplates the terror of singing for a crowd. He’s like a petrified version of Sheldon Cooper.
Zach Nadoiski gives us a constantly smiling, happy go lucky Wally who sure hopes he finds the right girl someday, and Tay Anderson is equally funny as the teen girl who doesn’t want to upset her demanding papa.
Rounding out this great cast is Andrew LeJeune as the soft-spoken mechanic Skip, who doesn’t like complications in
life, and can sure raise the roof belting out hits like “The Wanderer.”
“Life Could Be a Dream” is terrific escapist fun, an evening to look back at a more innocent era, when love was on everybody’s mind and the doo wop songs were tantalizing.
“Life Could Be a Dream” is being performed now through Oct. 8 at the theater at 711 Orange Ave., Suite C in Winter Park. To learn more or make a reservation, call 407-645-0145.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..