There are moments in “Dream” when you just want to wake up. A musical revue of no less than 44 songs with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, this directorial debut of choreographer Wayne Cilento is so lacking in imagination that one might expect two giant Oscar statues to lumber across the stage during the de rigueur Hollywood tribute. It’s the only time in “Dream” that expectations are met.
The talents of Lesley Ann Warren, Margaret Whiting and jazz singer/guitarist John Pizzarelli are wasted in this lackluster, low-budget entry that, however well intentioned, does little to honor the great Mercer or the composers with whom he collaborated. And what collaborators: The song roster, divided into five sections representing various eras of the lyricist’s life, is a virtual Who’s Who of 20th-century pop composers: Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Billy Strayhorn and James Van Heusen, just for starters. But like another recently opened Broadway musical — “Play On!,” featuring the music of Duke Ellington — “Dream” squanders the opportunity to turn songwriting genius into theatrical magic.
Unlike “Play On!,” “Dream” (conceived by producer Louise Westergaard and Jack Wrangler, Whiting’s husband) has no book, instead offering nearly two hours and 30 minutes of production numbers, a lineup that would be wearying even if the ensemble of dancers wasn’t working so obviously hard. Cilento, whose choreography played such an essential role in the successes of “Tommy” and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” here offers little more than uninspired (however rigorous) retreads of dance routines familiar from any number of television variety shows, Hollywood musicals and stage productions. When all else fails, he falls back on Fred and Ginger.
Cilento is particularly hard on his stars, presenting both Warren and Whiting in ways not to their advantage. Warren, usually attired in some slinky dress (even the ever-reliable costumer Ann Hould-Ward stumbles with this show), does one vampy routine after another (“Blues in the Night,” “That Old Black Magic”), taking too seriously the shtick she parodied (to better effect) in the film “Victor/Victoria.”
Whiting, the legendary singer who actually introduced some of these tunes when they were written, now has a voice better suited to more intimate cabaret venues. Although she delivers nice versions of standards such as “One for My Baby” and “Day In-Day Out,” she’s undermined by Cilento’s misguided staging: On “Baby,” she fidgets loudly with a cigarette lighter while an onstage bartender does some distracting business in the background. Later in the show, Whiting makes an entrance perched atop a piano, her legs dangling over the edge like a child’s in a highchair.
Pizzarelli comes off best, probably because he seems to have been left to his own devices. A smoky-voiced crooner a la Harry Connick Jr. (and a wonderfully supple guitarist), Pizzarelli all but steals the show with his leisurely renditions of “Fools Rush In” and, especially, “I Thought About You.” Latter song is performed solo, giving the charismatic singer a chance to ad-lib with the audience — and giving the audience a breather from the otherwise tightly wound staging.
The large ensemble of singers and dancers features some talented performers — Jonathan Dokuchitz and Jessica Molaskey, especially — and the dancers certainly are put through their paces. But Cilento’s choreography is strictly by the numbers: A Hollywood Canteen segment has the requisite jitterbugging and Andrews Sisters moves, a Rainbow Room portion knocks off Fred Astaire’s cheek-to-cheek routines. The only surprises come in “Accentuate the Positive,” when a chorus of four male dancers performs a routine that inexplicably encompasses jungle dances, baseball and boxing moves, a grenade toss and a pantomimed sneeze.
All of the dance numbers seem cramped on David Mitchell’s sub-par set. The physical production falls far short of Broadway levels, sometimes with unintentional humor: The giant Academy Award-like statues would be too kitschy even for an Oscar telecast, and a steam-blowing, cardboard-cutout train arrives straight from community theater. Hould-Ward’s costumes, from unflattering flapper dresses to the Barbie doll gown Warren dons for “Moon River,” betray the production’s low budget. “Dream,” however unintentionally, does the same to Mercer