Thursday, September 28

In Dreams – Leeds Playhouse

Everyone knows a Roy Orbison tune even if they can’t quite remember who wrote it, so some of the 20th century’s greatest pop songs were always going to be a natural fit for a jukebox musical.

All too often jukebox musicals crudely throw in all the hits and forget to actually tell a story that hangs together, so enter Emmy winner David West Read who has crafted a coherent book full of the sort of big heart and gags he delivered writing for TV show Schitt’s Creek. It’s hard not to think of the similarly warm-hearted Waitress watching this show, and that’s a standard that all shows should aim for.

It helps that Orbison’s beautifully constructed pop classics are vignettes full of loss, yearning and occasional hope that means they aren’t simply thrown in for no good reason, but on the whole add to the narrative drive. It helps that West Read is again working with director Luke Sheppard who co-created their surprise hit & Juliet. Sheppard keeps the energy up throughout without losing the emotional impact of life changing moments and makes the most of some energetic dance routines by Fabian Aloise on Arnulfo Maldonado’s bright cross culture diner set.

The story weaves round faded American pop star Kenna who gets a life changing diagnosis, so in a neat twist she decides to invite her estranged Heartbreak Radio bandmates to a struggling Mexican diner who specialise in using traditional ceremonies to celebrate people’s lives, but usually after they are dead.  That’s what makes West Read’s book work as he skilfully weaves in ideas around Dead of the Day rituals and attitudes to our own mortality as the hits keep coming. There is something transformative hearing the Big O’s Crying sung in Spanish proving that great songs transcend cultural differences.

Photo: Pamela Raith

Tony winner Lena Hall oozes star quality as Kenna and is totally believable as a rock star who can’t articulate her feelings, and her powerhouse performance of epic ballad Crying is simply sensational. They’ve recruited some big guns for this world premiere like rugged & Juliet alumni Oliver Tompsett battling a dodgy British accent as the band’s drummer turned Uber driver Ramsey, nicely timing some decent gags, and his big take on Wild Hearts Run Out Of Times is full of West End knowhow. 

West Read has great fun with the band’s bassist Jane and guitarist Donovan who are now married with five kids but have lost themselves, and there’s no big surprise in how their story plays out.  Another West End stalwart Noel Sullivan and Emmerdale’s Sian Reese-Williams both sing beautifully, and their comic timing as a worn out married couple is spot on.

This show is anchored by the wisdom of the Mexican diner owners who help Kenna and her bandmates find their way back to each other.  Manuel Pacific as diner owner Oscar is full of his own pent-up grief getting closest to Orbison’s distinctive singing style on a raw In Dreams. Gabriela Garcia is yet another young but highly experienced performer impressing as his pregnant wife Nicole, who uses the songs to find her way past Oscar’s defences.

What makes a great jukebox musical are the minor characters, and West Read has seamlessly integrated them, so we know their backstories, including Leon Craig’s wonderfully over the top superfan Tom.  The veterans get their chance too as Richard Trinder’s silver fox widower George delivers a witty version of Pretty Woman to the family’s grandmother Sofia played by Alma Cuervo, and their duet informed by hard won life experience on Blue Bayou/Only The Lonely was exquisite.

The joy of Schitt’s Creek was a large cast all taking tricky personal journeys to find their more authentic selves, almost without you noticing, and that is exactly what happens here with the addition of some timeless classic songs.

In Dreams is exactly the sort of original work a major regional powerhouse like Leeds Playhouse should be delivering, and they’ve produced a show about love and redemption that appeals across the ages as my 18-year-old daughter described it as a ‘warm and easy night out’ but is still full of emotional depth if that’s what you like.   

The Big O’s songs are probably more familiar to American ears, so this production might find a home on Broadway, but there’s no reason not to think In Dreams is bound for the West End.

In Dreams is at Leeds Playhouse until Saturday 5th August. To book or 0113 2137700.

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 12th July 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.