In each of its three stops so far, Roger Bean’s Life Could Be a Dream has maintained the same cast. The jukebox musical about the Crooning Crabcakes — a boy doo-wop band in 1960 — began at the Hudson Theatre in the summer of 2009. The production remained intact as it moved to the Laguna Playhouse the following year. It graduated last weekend to a larger stage with larger cast paychecks when it opened at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.
“We went from earning pennies [at the Hudson] to being put up at the beach and now to La Mirada where we’re getting real money,” says co-star Jessica Keenan Wynn.
Bean agrees. “We’ve grown up and now they’ve got a real nice contract.” Because he made changes — small ones and a couple of significant ones since last year’s production in Laguna — Bean says the cast will earn those larger paychecks. “I apologize to the actors when I do this. Sometimes I want to be more concise so I take out a word or two, so it’s hard for them because they’ve done it hundreds of times.”
The original Life Could Be a Dream won three LA Drama Critics Circle and three Backstage Garland awards — for production, ensemble and musical direction in each of the competitions — and it was named LA Weekly’s Musical of the Year.
The cast includes Doug Carpenter, Ryan Castellino, Jim Holdridge and Daniel Tatar who says, “This is like an annual reunion.” The time since the last production, he says, gave Bean the luxury to reconstruct some characters. “My character (Denny) has changed a lot actually. He’s more of a team player this around, although he never thinks he’s not likable. He’s just more endearing but still as quirky as ever.”
Tatar moved from suburban Chicago to Los Angeles five years ago. He admits he misses Chicago’s weather — a little. “And I miss seeing people move furniture into the street to guard their parking spots.” He entered the University of Illinois to become a doctor. “Then I switched to acting. My parents were thrilled,” he jokes.
“When my agent was pitching me for this show a few years ago, Roger wouldn’t bring me in. I said, ‘Please, I just want to be seen.’ They finally called me in for Skip, Doug’s [Carpenter] role. They just had me keep reading and I finally got in. Amazing that three years later we’re still working on it.”
It may not have an intricate plot, but Tatar believes the focus should be on the music. “You don’t leave there saying the story line was why I went to see the show. You leave singing the songs. The story line helps you invest in the music emotionally, but it’s not about plausibility. If that’s your focus, you’ll miss the overall escapism of it. I mean, it isn’t Death of a Salesman.”
The song list includes “Stay (Just A Little Bit Longer),” “Runaround Sue,” “The Great Pretender,” “Tears On My Pillow,” “Unchained Melody,” “Earth Angel,” and “The Glory of Love.”
Wynn believes there would have been havoc had one of the ensemble members been unavailable for this third go-round. “It probably would’ve been a jarring experience. I think the reason this works so well now is because we’ve developed intricate relationships with each other that are important to the characters. Bonds have developed. It makes for a better formula.”
Wynn also finds differences with her character, Lois. “She’s completely different. She used to be more demure, an archetypical 1950s young woman. She was much more timid before. Now she’s a ballsy go-getter like me.”
The improvement is palpable, she says. “She’s more driven, less wishy-washy. She used to be unable to make decisions, especially with Skip. Now she can deal with him and the others better without feeling sorry for herself.”
Along with her attitude comes a new way of singing, she says. “It’s a more brassy sound, lower and richer.” It’s a trick she uses when she auditions, pulling out her love for Janis Joplin. “I’ve walked into auditions where they wanted a legit Ethel Merman and instead I’ll sing Joplin’s ‘Cry Baby’ and usually get a callback.”
Wynn comes from a long line of actors known for getting callbacks. Her family tree traces back to prominent Shakespearean and silent-film actor Frank Keenan, Ed Wynn (Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland), Keenan Wynn (Annie Get Your Gun, Dr. Strangelove, The Absent Minded Professor), Tracy Wynn (screenplay The Longest Yard) and Ned Wynn (author “We Will Always Live In Beverly Hills”). Her website notes the Wynns and the Barrymores are “the only two families to preserve their theatrical lineage for almost 100 years.”
The dynasty, she says, usually comes up among the 40-plus crowd. “I’ve had a couple people my age ask about it. It’s remarkable that people my age even know about my family. Very few people know about Ed Wynn. And my real last name is Armstrong — I chose Wynn to help carry on the tradition.” Keenan is her middle name. “When I first joined SAG there were too many Jessica Keenans, so I had to use something else unless I wanted to wait for them all to die out.”
Roger Bean may have given birth to his own dynasty — a large family of musical theater shows. At 49, he has penned 12 pieces, including The Andrews Brothers, Route 66, Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Winter Wonderettes and The Marvelous Wonderettes (2007 Ovation Award winner for best musical in an intimate theater).
It is The Marvelous Wonderettes that ushered in Life Could Be a Dream. The girls in the Wonderettes get to sing at a function because the high school banned the boys’ band, The Crabcake Crooners. The boys come back to enter a radio contest in Life Could Be a Dream.
“There are many more shows in me,” predicts Bean. “I enjoy writing in this style and genre because it’s personally interesting. I adore the ’60s.”
He describes himself as a solitary kind of person, a wallflower who prefers to stand in the back of the room, unnoticed, watching how people interact. “Then I like to get on my computer, put on headphones, listen to music and be transported.”
His next work, he reveals, is an unannounced musical about — the ’60s. He also maintains a folder he describes as overrun with crazy ideas, including thoughts on a show that would pull from the 1970s Disco era. “Once I get to it, I know I can’t be ironic about it or make fun of the period. The show itself can’t look down on anyone or be laughed upon.”
He remembers being a director who was looking for work and decided to get into writing. “I need to be in charge of things,” he says. “My partner would call me a control freak, so it was natural to collaborate with songs that were already written, songs that I could fiddle with and base a story on. I love collaborating with designers and actors. but the creative process can go awry with too many cooks in the kitchen. Working with songs is the best of all possible worlds.”
As he plots a story and chooses a pivotal song, Bean quickly discovers who owns the rights and whether they’re available. “Music publishers are like banks were a few years ago, gobbling each other up, so they’re figuring out their next big stake in the world. Owners of songs sometimes change hands from one year to another to another. We don’t get any songs in perpetuity so we always have to renew our licensing,” which can affect the remounting of a show.
“I’m aware my shows have to do well and are seen in a good light,” he says, “so when we go back to publishers they’ll renew us.”
Keeping his shows based on stories that range from the doo-wop era of the 1950s to the 1970s gives Bean confidence he’ll have a built-in audience. “I think it’s a really sweet pocket for ticket buyers right now. I do write to sell tickets and know who my audience is; mainly, they’re the ones who subscribe to theater, the people who grew up and remember the music of that era.”
He acknowledges, however, having thoughts about a show based on music that recently has come into the public domain, pre-1923. “It’s a bigger show, maybe something I’ll do in a couple years. The older the music, the less automatic the audience is. I want audiences who’ll sit there and enjoy it and tell their friends and drag their mothers to it.”
Life Could Be a Dream is beginning to make the rounds regionally. Bean says it will be at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati where both Wonderettes shows have gone up. “Oregon Cabaret Theatre is doing it, too,” says Bean, “and they also did Marvelous Wonderettes along with a couple others of mine. It’s some of these repeat customers that clue in to this kind of small show and this type of humor and use of nostalgia in the music. They want to come back in part because it’s a nice economical piece for theaters to produce.”
His hope is that Life finds its way to New York. That would sit well with Wynn, whose mother put her in musical theater camp when she was seven to keep her fair skin out of the summer sun. “I have always wanted to do musical theater. If New York is on that list and I move away from home, that’s when I’ll discover how far I want to go with [stage work]. I want to move people through song. Film and TV pays well, but they don’t fulfill you the same way as when you’re on stage.”
New York or not, Bean will quietly keep himself occupied, whether it’s with a new show or modifying an existing part of his repertoire. “I never feel like they’re finished. I always want to improve them. The artist in me keeps looking for the truth in each one. It keeps us all on our feet.”
Life Could Be a Dream, presented by McCoy Rigby Entertainment. Wed.-Thurs. 7:30 pm; Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 2 pm and 8 pm; Sun. at 2 pm. Through Nov. 20. Tickets: $35-50. La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada/ 562-944-9801. www.lamiradatheatre.com.
***All Life Could Be a Dream production photos by Michael Lamont