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SCRUTINY | The Music Carries The Show In ‘In Dreams, A New Musical’

By Paula Citron on October 5, 2023

Kenna (Lena Hall) In Dreams (Photo: Pamela Raith)
Kenna (Lena Hall) In Dreams (Photo: Pamela Raith)

David Mirvish & John Sachs/In Dreams, A New Musical, book by David West Read, music by Roy Orbison, directed by Luke Sheppard, CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre, until Nov. 12. Tickets here.

The new musical In Dreams has a lot going for it, but it needs work.

The creators are the same team behind the smash hit & Juliet, so the promise is there. As a jukebox musical, & Juliet used the hits of Max Martin for its score. This new kid is built around 22 songs of legendary singer/songwriter Roy Orbison (1936-1988). From au courant contemporary, this jukebox is reaching back in time.

Unlike other songwriters of his era, Orbison’s canon was not lollypop/feel good or macho man/driving beat. In fact, his songs tended to be intimate laments that were poignant and emotional. Many expressed a deep loneliness or pain, or loss. He himself said of mid-century male culture, “I don’t think anyone had accepted the fact that a man should cry when he wants to cry.” Although Orbison did write up-tempo rockabilly music, he’s much more famous for his dramatic songs of sadness. Even his rockin’ songs were about deeply held feelings.

Full company In Dreams (Photo: Pamela Raith)
Full company In Dreams (Photo: Pamela Raith)

The Story

This Orbison darkness, as it were, feeds into the story line created by book writer and former Toronto native, David West Read.

The focus is Kenna (Tony-winner Lena Hall), a 40-something singer. She’s now a solo act, but 15 years ago, she performed with a fairly well-known rock band called Heartbreak Radio. When she receives a cancer diagnosis, she decides to throw her own celebration of life party at Felices Sueños (Sweet Dreams), a small Mexican restaurant somewhere in the American southwest that specializes in such gatherings, although they are customarily conducted after death.

And now we start to meet a plethora of characters (maybe too many), each with his/her own subplot or trauma.

The restaurant is run by the moody and distant Oscar (Manuel Pacific), his effervescent pregnant wife Nicole (Nasim Ramírez), and his worldly-wise grandmother Ana Sofia (Alma Cuervo). During the musical, Ana Sofia acquires a beau called George (Richard Trinder). As it happens, Tom (Leon Craig), the chef at Felices Sueños, is a die-hard Heartbreak Radio fan.

Through various circumstances, Kenna’s old bandmates show up for the party. Drummer Ramsey (Oliver Tompsett) is her ex-boyfriend, and their relationship ended badly. Guitarists Jane (Sian Reese-Williams) and Donovan (Noël Sullivan) are now married. Donovan is a successful banker, and the couple has five children.

Writer Read has also thrown in a gay trope between chef Tom and police officer Lee (Mark Peachey). Hannah Ducharme, Fabiola Ocasio, and Ache Hernandez make up the small ensemble. Interestingly, the cast is weighted on the older side of things, so there is a lot of age and experience on the stage.

What Works

The mostly British cast includes phenomenal singers, and Orbison’s music is rendered in superb fashion. Music director Patrick Hurley and orchestrator Catherine Jayes have done a brilliant job arranging the Orbison songs to fit the mood required. In fact, In Dreams is almost too much a music parade. Will a younger audience respond to this blast from the past? One hopes greatness (and Orbison was a towering talent) will pass the test of time.

The set (Arnulfo Maldonado), which is mostly the Felices Sueños restaurant itself, is realistic and colourful to a fault, as are the costumes (Fay Fullerton). The projections (George Reeve) of the southwest sky are gorgeous, and the lighting (Howard Hudson) is fantastic in highlighting both aspects of the set and pin-spotting the people. What choreography (Fabian Aloise) there is, is charming.

Director Luke Sheppard (the other half with Read of the & Juliet phenomenon) can certainly bring out character, and move traffic around the stage. He can highlight both humour and sadness. In other words, Sheppard is a most accomplished director.

Oscar (Manuel Pacific) In Dreams (Photo: Pamela Raith)
Oscar (Manuel Pacific) In Dreams (Photo: Pamela Raith)

What Needs Work

Okay, so now we come to the crux of the matter.

The glory of & Juliet was the cleverness and originality of the script, or so everyone says. Alas, the book for In Dreams is predictable, as are the relationships between the characters. We’re also dealing with stereotypes. While there are some clever, ironic lines, there aren’t enough of them. At the moment, the music is carrying the show (but what great music it is).

The central focus is compelling — a woman thinking she might die so she wants to attend her own celebration of life — and matching the story with Orbison’s music that tends to be on the sad side is a terrific idea. But, the book itself is just not, at this point, strong enough to reach the heights.

Less predictability? Fewer characters? Fewer subplots and stereotypes? More raw emotion? Kenna, the heroine, is just a little too cheery. We need more darkness.

Final Thoughts

That’s what these tryouts are all about — working out the kinks. In Dreams has already had a stint at the Leeds Playhouse in England, and now it’s in Toronto for a second go round. When it does finally get to the West End and Broadway, it will be a substantially different show.

At the moment, though, why should you see In Dreams here in town? The singing is fantastic, the Roy Orbison music is awesome, and the look of the show is wonderful. Trust me. You’ll have a good time.


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Paula Citron
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