Having paid his dues to Maria Callas, “Master Class” director Leonard Foglia has turned his attention to Harold Arlen, conceiving, supplying the story for and directing this “new Harold Arlen musical.” It’s a stylish, highly polished creation, a nonstop song-and-dance show with no dialogue in which the lyrics, which are of a particularly high quality, tell the tale, limn the situations and evoke the emotions. And since in the pantheon of popular songwriters they don’t come much finer than Arlen, “Dreamland” is musically sophisticated. It also gives the new management at Sharon’s summer theater its first success, just in time to bring its second season to an upbeat close.
Judging by the expensive look of the production, its creators and producers have their sights set beyond Sharon, and there’s no doubt that “Dreamland” might well go on to prosper elsewhere. But given that the recent Johnny Burke omnibus songbook show “Swinging on a Star” failed to find a sufficient audience on Broadway, the fate of “Dreamland” there could be iffy despite the show’s obvious entertainment value. Even though “Dreamland” does have something of a Rainbow Room aura about it, it’s clearly conceived theatrically, big set and all.
And though it is never less than smoothly enjoyable, “Dreamland” does lack that indefinable something that would set it apart from all the other omnibus songbook shows that have inundated us over the past 20 or so years, “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” being a shining example. Careful handling is called for.
Foglia’s “Dreamland” story is simplicity itself. Two women and two men (Colette Hawley, Natalie Venetia Belcon, Jason Opsahl and Thos Shipley) dress for and go to the Dreamland Ballroom on a Saturday night and meet. One couple forms a relationship, the other doesn’t. End of story.
The production opens with the four trying to decide what to wear, the pre-ballroom scene played out in front of a white scrim and culminating in a clever interweaving of “Down With Love,” “Accentuate the Positive” and “Get Happy.” Then the scrim rises to reveal Michael McGarty’s set, an elaborate ballroom of white-plaster architecturaldetailing and Rousseau jungle murals with a bar on one side, tables and chairs on the other and a rear dais for the terrific six-piece band. A period, probably the late 1930s, is evoked by the suits and wide-brim hats the men wear, the women’s flowing gowns and David Marques’ quirky, lively, often jivey choreography, usually danced by a professional dance team played by Deborah Leamy and Jim Osorno.
Via music and lyrics the evening progresses through mating rituals as Belcon’s character aggressively chases the men and the Hawley character, who has loved and lost, resists and finally succumbs to a second chance. The evening ends in the wee hours as the ballroom closes, but not before pianist-conductor Bruce W. Coyle has played and sung “Hit the Road to Dreamland” and Shipley croons a haunting version of “One for My Baby” (even if the set doesn’t have a jukebox for “another nickel”). All of Peter Matz’s arrangements and orchestrations are splendid.
There are a number of musical surprises, one of the wickedest being the use of “Stormy Weather” as the tango accompaniment to a sexy apache dance by Leamy and Osorno. There’s quick audience laughter when Belcon’s steamy “One Man Ain’t Quite Enough” is immediately followed by the lyric “My mama done told me” of “Blues in the Night,” also splendidly sung by Shipley. Hawley makes an indelible impression with her bold “Down With Love,” while Opsahl, who looks a bit like Johnny Ray, quietly but surely marks out his musical territory in such numbers as “Let’s Fall in Love” and “What Can You Say in a Love Song?”
There’s also a tongue-in-cheek medley of Paree songs, a lovely duet of “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe,” and a variety of songs from the Judy Garland version of “A Star Is Born.” During the show the two supporting cast members, Kele Baker and Harry L. Colley, play a waitress, a French waif and the barman.
The show certainly doesn’t have second-act troubles. Indeed, act two is wittier and tighter than act one. The first act is unbalanced by a dream sequence in which the band’s dais revolves the musicians out of sight to set the scene for a large-scale production number in which Shipley’s ideal woman turns out to be Belcon as the flesh-peddling character in Arlen’s musical “House of Flowers.” Though the songs “House of Flowers” and “Two Ladies in de Shade of the Banana Tree” are well staged, choreographed and performed, the dream sequence takes the emphasis away from the ballroom and its four main characters for too long, and the show doesn’t get back on track until the very funny second-act opening, “T’morra, T’morra.”
All of the cast members are highly talented, as are the band’s musicians, and “Dreamland” has a lot going for it. Now it’s up to Foglia to make the most of what he’s already achieved.