By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
“Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream)” is the name of a 1954 rock ’n roll song written by James Keyes, Carl Feaster, Floyd McRae, Claude Feaster and James Edwards.
It’s also the name of a 2009 jukebox musical that features 24 rock and pop culture songs primarily from 1954 through 1961 (including “Sh-Boom”).
Now in a new production at Laguna Playhouse, the show originally bore the title “Life Could Be a Dream” but is now called “Sh-Boom! Life Could Be a Dream” (presumably to better indicate its musical content).
The show was created and written by Roger Bean, whose resume bursts with similar shows like “Route 66,” “Honky Tonk Laundry” and the four “Wonderettes” musicals.
The show’s regional roots are prominent: The original staging, at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood, was directed by Bean and produced by David Elzer; as Elzer is Laguna Playhouse’s chief publicist, it was inevitable that “Life” would eventually land there.
Indeed, this is the venue’s second time offering “Life” and its first live show in 19 months. The Playhouse is clearly intent upon bringing patrons back and helping them feel comfortable attending live performances, making a lighthearted, crowd-pleasing show the obvious choice.
(If you’re wary of venturing back into seeing live theater, call the Playhouse’s staff. They’ll be happy to outline the pandemic protocols they’ve implemented.)
Like most jukebox musicals, the show’s raison d’etre is to showcase a raft of songs from a particular era. The slender plot is meant to (and does) take a back seat to the musical content.
Expertly directed and choreographed by Jonathan Van Dyke and skillfully music-directed by Nick Guerrero, Laguna’s production does exactly that.
“Fools Fall in Love,” “Earth Angel,” “Runaround Sue,” “Tears on My Pillow,” “Stay” and “Duke of Earl,” are among the playlist’s most well-known selections, but playhouse patrons will also hear obscurities like “Get a Job,” “Easier Said Than Done” and “Buzz Buzz Buzz.”
Bean ingeniously interweaves these tunes into a frothy storyline whose focus is a trio of rock-crazy teens, circa 1960, determined to win a local radio show contest designed as a talent search.
Denny Varney (Alex Fullerton) lives in his mom’s basement, where he stokes dreams of breaking into show-biz as a rock star. After convincing pals Eugene Johnson (Noah A. Lyon) and Wally Patton (Willie Beaton II) to join him, he aims to convince the local auto repair shop’s owner, “Big Earl” Franklin, to sponsor their entry into the contest.
Instead of evaluating the boys himself, Big Earl sends his daughter Lois (Sophia Swannell) and his best mechanic, Duke Henderson (Dorian Quinn). Complications ensue, including Duke becoming the group’s fourth singer, a budding romance between Duke and Lois, and all four guys vying for Lois’ attention.
The show’s running theme is that children and teens can and should be allowed to dream their wildest dreams and be encouraged to pursue their heart’s desire. Indeed, Laguna’s production actualizes this, displaying teendom dreaming at its most fervent.
Van Dyke’s starring quintet overcomes any inherent superficialities. Fullerton, Lyon and Beaton portray Denny, Eugene and Wally as typical happy-go-lucky teens – engagingly goofy nerds unabashed in their wholesomeness.
Fullerton’s Denny brims with over-the-top self-confidence epitomized by his boast, “I’m a dreamer – what would I do with a regular job?” Lyon nicely sketches Eugene’s jittery temperament – not just stage fright, but his not feeling relaxed around others. Beaton’s Wally has as much talent, but without his pals’ flaws.
Lois exhibits poise and self-assurance even while coping with the boys’ hopelessly amateurish theatrics and enduring having Duke hold her at arm’s length. In Swannell’s hands, Lois is the quiet but forceful center of the story – and of this production.
Haunted by self-doubt, Quinn’s Duke is as mature as Lois, a clean-cut grease monkey whose respect for his elders and women overrides any personal desires. Next to the smug Denny, Duke is positively heroic.
All five actors positively revel in the beauty and craftsmanship of the show’s captivating songs, mastering intricate harmonies and ear-pleasing melodies that have long since become a part of our culture.
The cast generates pleasing harmonies and achieve an authentic doo-wop sound in performing “Fools Fall in Love.” The song’s Act Two reprise, meshed with “The Glory of Love,” is among the show’s highlights.
Other musical peaks: Lyon’s vocal work in “Only You,” as Lyon and the guys evoke The Platters’ original rendition; Fullerton, Lyon and Beaton delivering a lovely a capella version of “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet”; Quinn’s vocally expressive solo turn of “A Sunday Kind of Love”; and his and Swannell’s powerful duet of “Unchained Melody,” the showstopping Act One closer.
The deliriously joyous grand finale’s five numbers bubble over with unbridled joy, as Lyon shines in leading “Do You Love Me?” and Beaton’s pure tenor vocals elevate “The Twist.”
Throughout the show, Van Dyke subsumes his choreography to the songs themselves, their vocals, and even the script’s characterizations, reminding us that in the jukebox musicals that are Bean’s specialty, singing takes precedence over all.
The production’s set design and costumes provide a visual boost. Chris Strangfeld’s realization of Denny’s basement domicile is nicely detailed with his prized possessions – his records, electric guitar, hockey stick, trophies, and concert and movie posters – while Ellie Chaffee and Madison Queen’s costumes eschew period stereotypes in favor of a generic look that transcends all eras.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through October 31. Running time: Two hours (including intermission). Tickets: $51 to $101. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, www.lagunaplayhouse.org.
For Laguna Playhouse pandemic protocols, visit https://lagunaplayhouse.com/health-and-safety-policy/.
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects for various publications since the mid-1980s but is best known for his coverage of Orange County theater.