BWW Review: FREEWAY DREAMS at the Brickhouse Theatre is a Slow and Bumpy Ride
While sitting through the "world premiere" of Wayne Moore's Freeway Dreams, I found myself wondering what century we were in. According to the press release, I was seeing a "new musical", and according to the program, the setting is "earlier today on the Hollywood freeway." According to my calculations, the setting should be Los Angeles, on May 19, 2017. So, why were there a bunch of Bette Davis & Fred Astaire references? Why are the millennial characters all getting traffic updates from the radio and not Waze? Why are there songs poking fun at struggling actors working as pizza delivery drivers and waiters, and not Uber drivers or Postmates carriers? Why did all the jokes feel like they were made by Seinfeld two decades ago?
I was genuinely confused, so after the show I did a little digging. Low and behold I unearthed the truth: Freeway Dreams isn't a new musical after all. I found the original cast recording on YouTube -- with a 1992 copyright -- making it over twenty-five years old!
At first, I thought it must have been a fluke: two musicals with the same name. It happens. However, when I clicked on the YouTube playlist, I discovered the songs were all exactly the same ones I heard at the theatre. What the heck? This wasn't a world premiere at all. Was this just a devious ploy to get the press to the theatre? I felt lied to.
As it turns out, Freeway Dreams was originally staged in 1992 as a nightclub revue at the Gardena in Hollywood. The show reportedly had a good run, and a cast recording memorialized the performances forever. After it closed at the Gardena, composer Wayne Moore continued singing songs from the show in piano bars throughout Los Angeles. Patrons who enjoyed the tunes would ask Moore what the script was like, and he would reply that the show didn't really have one -- it was just a bunch of songs loosely tied together by the common theme of living in Los Angeles.
Twenty-five years later, Moore finally gave the show a script that brought everything together. Director Jim Blanchette was chosen to steer the reimagined work from the bar to the theatre. Sets were erected, costumes designed, and light cues programmed. What resulted was what I saw last Friday night at the Brickhouse Theatre in North Hollywood.
Four strangers are stuck in heavy traffic on the Hollywood Freeway after a tour bus full of Asians tips over (can you already tell this was written in the 90s?). Lee (Jonathan Brett), a starving actor/pizza delivery guy, is running late with his deliveries. Brenda (Stephanie Andersen), a Hollywood casting director, is running late to a casting session for a new Steven Spielberg film. Andrew (Darren Mangler) is another "starving" actor who is busy reflecting on what an overweight loser he really is. And lastly, Deborah (Leslie Rubino) is running late to her yoga appointment.
We learn more about these characters as we quickly cycle through a marathon of fifteen musical numbers in less than an hour. Each song is a fantasy that takes place inside each driver's head, and whimsically features the other drivers stuck in traffic. The show is ultimately an ode to the unglamorous and impoverished life on the fringes of the Los Angeles entertainment industry.
How Was It?
I never saw the original nightclub revue version of Freeway Dreams, considering it premiered at exactly the same time my parents were busy conceiving me (I did the math -- it checks out), but, despite not having seen it, I can confidently say this piece works much better as something you'd see drunk in a bar in the 90s.
First, the script and songs all seem very dated. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but the show just oozed with microscopic hints that we weren't in 2017 anymore. It was the sum of a bunch of little things that led me to believe we were in a different millennium. This supposedly modern piece features jokes about Asian filled tour buses, actors working as pizza delivery guys, characters in their 20s getting traffic updates from the radio, jokes about over-the-top radio jingles, songs that made light of serious mental health issues, and one too many references to entertainers who died last millennium.
Don't get me wrong: It's not that these things are no longer relevant. Sure, Asian tourists still occupy a disproportionate number of seats on Starline Tour buses; actors sometimes still work as pizza guys; and, radio station jingles are still pretty obnoxious (heck, even Family Guy made a joke about radio station jingles, albeit ten years ago). It's just that these things seem more like topics Seinfeld would have joked about back in the day, rather than something a writer in 2017 would even bother taking a jab it. It's akin to a sweaty comic making jokes about airline food.
Second, much of the material seemed dated even for 1992. The characters were all somewhere between the ages of 25 and 35, yet they were making jokes about Bette Davis and Fred Astaire? Like, was I missing something? My parents are even too young for those references.
Third, while I appreciate the bold choice, that thing where the director sat in the audience with his arms crossed while mumbling all the off-stage lines just didn't work the same way the production probably thought it would. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, this production features a lot of one-way cell phone calls. But, instead of the calls being "one-way", the director sits in the audience and mumbles the other half of the call in the style of a muffled phone connection. The exchanges all seemed really awkward. I think it had to do with the director being halfway in the show, and halfway out of it -- as an audience member. What resulted was something that appeared more like a half-assed stand-in performance than a polished piece of the show. I'm sure this idea sounded great on paper, but the whole thing ended up being more than a tad bit weird. Sadly, we don't have a picture of it.
Fourth, fifty-five minutes is not a "full-length" musical.
Fifth, and lastly, all the songs seem like they would be far more enjoyable while inebriated at a bar. Especially that one where Lee just lists off a bunch of Italian dishes for two whole minutes. I can actually see myself rocking out to that after some Jägerbombs.
The show does have its merits, though. The cast was phenomenal. They really gave it their all.
Leslie Rubino was a standout of the night. She committed to some really engaging performances that were without a doubt the high-points of the show. "My Superman" and "Doncha Wanna Know" were my two personal favorite numbers, and both were her solos. Bravo.
The rest of the cast brought their A-game, too. Stephanie Andersen played casting director Brenda with both a toughness and vulnerability that made her beyond lovable. Jonathan Brett embodied Lee, the stoner actor, with remarkable ease. It's like he wasn't even acting at all. Darren Mangler made the audience feel for Andrew, the overweight, pathetic, and struggling actor. Plus the "I BEAT ANOREXIA" shirt he wore in his program photo is beyond perfect.
However, all-in-all, I felt the show was running on a flat. I have no doubt Freeway Dreams would work well as a cabaret, and the songs would be crowd favorites in a piano bar, but this crudely adapted embodiment simply didn't translate well to the theatre. I won't go as far as to call it a complete wreck, but it certainly lacks the much needed entertainment element to give this production wide appeal. While the traffic jam concept is interesting, I think in order to make this show work, a complete overhaul of the script and lyrics needs to be undertaken. As it stands now, Freeway Dreams strikes me as a dated 1990's period piece that was sloppily thrown together for community theatre.
Who Should See It?
If your friends are a part of this production, you might enjoy Freeway Dreams. If you are a fan of Wayne Moore's piano bar work, you also might get a kick out of seeing this. However, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend this to anybody else.
How to See It
Freeway Dreams runs through June 15th at the Brickhouse Theatre in North Hollywood, as part of Act Write Repertory's season. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here.
The Brickhouse Theatre is located at 10950 Peach Grove Street, Hollywood, CA, CA 91601.
PHOTO CREDIT: Alonzo Tavares