Review by Daz Gale
There is a real rise in regional theatres playing host to the world premieres of major new musicals of late. Shows that seem to be inevitably bound for the West End or Broadway are getting their starts in cities up and down the UK, proving the vitality of regional theatre. The latest of these is a new jukebox musical, taking the classic songbook of Roy Orbison and putting it alongside an exciting cast and creative team in the hopes of striking gold. But was In Dreams worth driving all night (well, a few hours in the morning) for?
In Dreams is set in New Mexico and tells the story of Kenna James (Lena Hall), the former lead singer of fictional band Heartbreak Radio. When she gets some life-changing news, she sets out to reunite with her old bandmates (and love interest) for a party while never revealing the real reason for the reunion. With memories from the past haunting them all and more than one secret among them all, the show goes on an emotional journey through a very short timeline.
The first thing to mention when it comes to In Dreams is its sensational cast. Oliver Tompsett brilliantly goes straight from his time in Pretty Woman to a show featuring the original singer of that classic song, proving once again what a charismatic actor he is. As Ramsey, he charms as the cocky cockney who at some points doesn’t feel a million miles away from his Shakespeare in &Juliet. Kenna’s other two band members Donovan and Jane form a fantastic double act as Noel Sullivan and Sian Reese-Williams, providing a comedic undertone in what has clearly become a complicated relationship.
Alma Cuervo delights as Ana Sofia, bringing a lot of heart to the piece and no shortage of mischief too, providing key to furthering the story, Manuel Pacific is a standout as the grieving Oscar, showing plenty of nuance to a theme that is never easy to portray effectively. His sensitive performance is elevated thanks to his soaring vocals. The role of his wife Nicole is usually played by Gabriela Garcia, but was played by Fabriola Ocasio in another example of how phenomenal understudies and alternates are to a production like this. Leon Craig is a highlight as Tom, the Heartbreak Radio superfan who threatens to steal every scene he’s in thanks to his mesmerising stage presence.
While the cast are consistently impressive, there is one person in this show who dominates, and rightly so. Step forward Lena Hall. The Tony Award winner and Grammy nominee crosses the pond to bless UK audiences with her presence. To say she is one of the most supremely talented performers I have ever had the good fortune to witness would be a severe understatement. What she does in her turn as Kenna is absolutely outstanding. Full of charisma and an unrivalled star quality like no other, she gave one of the single greatest performances I’ve ever seen in a versatile performance which demanded a playful nature, the ability to channel conflicting emotions simultaneously while hiding a serious and sombre undertone – all of which she does with ease in a performance which lingered in my mind long after I had left the theatre. And that’s not even talking about her voice, which deserves its own mention.
Roy Orbison’s songbook may not seem like the most obvious choice for a jukebox musical, particularly one that centres around a party. However, the sorrowful nature of some of his songs are perfectly played out in a show where two opposing themes compete in a beautiful juxtaposition. Classics like ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ is performed with joy from Richard Trinder with Manuel Pacific getting a standout moment with emotive title number ‘In Dreams’. Oliver Tompsett delivers a rousing rendition of the classic ‘I Drove All Night’ while one of Roy’s signature tunes ‘You Got It’ provides a key moment for the cast to sing together in its multiple appearances throughout. The biggest vocal performances of the night are reserved for Lena Hall who demonstrates a remarkable voice which seemingly knows no limits. A vast range and an ability to emote and act through song in a truly convincing way had me gasping for breath whenever she performed. Her own highlights included a stunning ‘Love Hurts’ but the performance of the night was an astonishing rendition of ‘Crying’, starting softly and bursting into something incredibly special – not just the best performance in the show, one of the best performances I have seen in a long time.
Luke Shepperd’s direction transformed the stage of Leeds Playhouse into a Mexican restaurant where most of the action took place. The initial reveal from the curtain that covers the stage until after the opening number was an unexpected delight, with glorious set design by Arnulfo Maldonado. Lukes direction made full use of the setting with some brilliant visual gags, often centred around the dynamic between Lena’s Kenna and Oliver’s Ramsey. Equally impressive is Fabian Aloise’s expert choreography, full of fun and flair. Exceptional lighting from Howard Hudson and a fantastic use of video design from George Reeve means this is a very good-looking production, with crystal clear sound design from Tom Marshall making this a well-rounded high quality production.
While the show itself is a very good looking one, it’s thankfully not a case of style over substance as the story to In Dreams has a lot going for it. Written by David West Read, who proved his knack for weaving together a great songbook and turning it into a fabulous musical when he created &Juliet (of which he reunites here with its director Luke Sheppard), he has created an interesting story which allows for a lot of fun to be had. The actual concept is intriguing and touches upon relatable issues in a perhaps unconventional one which is refreshing in itself. Full of brilliantly funny moments, the writing is full of versatility. For me, however, elements of the writing weren’t as strong as they could have been. I felt in a show with a fair few central characters, the majority of these felt underwritten with their own stories never feeling satisfying enough or played out in a natural manner. In terms of Kenna’s own journey which played out as the main theme to the show, it felt like much more could be done to really drive the story. An initial discovery that drives the story was too vague with a resolution that didn’t really feel like an end. To me, the second act lost its way in its structure slightly which, to me, was disappointing as I expected to experience a flurry of emotions as the show reached its climax. Sadly, these never came for me personally, though I did witness many around me experience huge emotions throughout so there is always the possibility I am in the minority here, I just felt there were elements of the writing that needed tightening up which would have elevated this production, for me at least, from a 4 star show to a 5 star one.
While I had my own issues with elements of the writing, it needs to be said that this is the very first outing for a brand-new musical and these things often take a bit of time to get right. A few minor tweaks could transform In Dreams into the perfect show with its themes of love and grief giving it the perfect platform for a relatable show which allows for a beautiful connection though in its present form, it still manages to be joyful and life-affirming. A stunning songbook performed by a stellar cast, themselves led by an out-of-this-world performance from Lena Hall makes In Dreams one of the most exciting new musicals I have seen in a long time, and one that I have no doubt will go on to live a long and successful life all around the world.
In Dreams concludes its run at Leeds Playhouse on 5th August. Tickets from https://leedsplayhouse.co.uk
It then has its North American premiere from September 26th at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in Toronto. Tickets from https://www.mirvish.com/shows/in-dreams
Photos by Pamela Raith