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Lena Hall plays Kenna, the In Dreams protagonist who gets her old band back together for one last party after she receives a cancer diagnosis.Mirvish

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  • Title: In Dreams
  • Book by: David West Read
  • Music and lyrics by: Roy Orbison and others
  • Director: Luke Sheppard
  • Actors: Lena Hall, Oliver Tompsett, Sian Reese-Williams, Noël Sullivan, Manuel Pacific
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: CAA Ed Mirvish Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To November 12, 2023

If you want to feel good about feeling bad, you could do no better than see In Dreams, the new Roy Orbison jukebox musical getting its North American premiere in Toronto.

Although the 1960s rock icon is best known for the upbeat Oh, Pretty Woman, Orbison’s real stock-in-trade was sadness. If he wasn’t singing about heartbreak (Only the Lonely, Crying), breakups (It’s Over) and yearning (Blue Bayou), he was seeking solace, as the title says, In Dreams. No wonder he always performed wearing dark glasses – his eyes must have been permanently red.

Sure enough, this new show from writer David West Read and director Luke Sheppard – creators of & Juliet – is packed with sad stuff: marital woes, unresolved grief, unfulfilled love and a possibly terminal illness.

But it’s also funny, exuberant and life-affirming. It’s what we’d expect from Read, one of the writers of that big-hearted sitcom Schitt’s Creek. It’s also a fitting tribute to the cathartic nature of Orbison’s songs – even if it seldom delivers the raw emotions that make those songs, and Orbison’s performances of them, so enduring.

The musical’s happy/sad locale is Felices Sueños, a Mexican American restaurant whose young married proprietors, Oscar (Manuel Pacific) and Nicole (Nasim Ramírez), serve up funeral rites along with the tacos. They usually arrange traditional Day of the Dead celebrations for the already deceased, but Kenna (Lena Hall), a country-rock singer from Texas, has convinced them to stage one for her. She’s just received a cancer diagnosis and she wants to throw one last big party, inviting the musicians in her former band.

That band, Heartbreak Radio, broke up 15 years ago and the members drifted away. Ramsey (Oliver Tompsett), the sexy British drummer and Kenna’s ex-lover, is now an Uber driver in Denver. The guitarist, Donovan (Noël Sullivan), and bass-player, Jane (Sian Reese-Williams), are married with five kids. Although Kenna doesn’t disclose the real reason for the reunion, they all head to Felices Sueños regardless – Ramsay because he thinks Kenna still loves him, Jane and Donovan just because they badly need a break.

Read weaves Orbison’s songs into the narrative at every opportunity. Ramsay does a comic rendition of the feverish I Drove All Night as he races to Kenna’s side. Unexpectedly confronted with her old flame, Kenna breaks into Running Scared. When Jane and Donovan talk about their unhappy marriage, it’s in the lyrics of Communication Breakdown.

Sometimes the numbers are cunningly deployed. When George (Richard Trinder), a widowed lawyer, visits the restaurant and falls for Oscar’s grandmother, Ana Sofia (Alma Cuervo), he woos her with Oh, Pretty Woman. Take that, ageism.

It’s no accident that, apart from Oscar and Nicole, most of the characters are middle-aged or older and the majority of the jokes are aimed at that demographic. Having served up a singalong for the millennial and Generation Z audience with & Juliet, their jukebox musical of Max Martin pop hits – which played Toronto last year en route to Broadway – Read and Sheppard have now gone after the boomers. And Gen X-ers, too – many of whom first discovered Orbison during his 1980s comeback, as part of the Traveling Wilburys, the supergroup that also included George Harrison and Bob Dylan.

In deference to that, a third of the show’s playlist consists of his Wilburys songs and other 1980s releases, including She’s a Mystery to Me, written for Orbison by U2′s Bono and the Edge. Here, that dark, religious-themed ballad gets a gender change and, sung by Ramírez’s Nicole, becomes an expression of bewilderment at her husband’s moody behaviour.

The show also does a gender flip in having its Orbison figure represented as a female rocker. In the role of Kenna, Broadway alum Hall (Kinky Boots, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) is a perfect embodiment, with a tough, black-clad exterior but an aching vulnerability let loose on those weepies, It’s Over and, of course, Crying.

The best Orbison impersonation, however, comes from Pacific as Oscar, who turns out to be still mourning his dead parents. In an ode to them, he does a gentle, thrilling rendition of In Dreams, complete with the requisite falsetto.

The rest of the cast is solid. They’ve had time to nail down their roles, having originated them in the musical’s first, U.K. run at the Leeds Playhouse this past summer. Among the Brits-playing-Americans, Reese-Williams is particularly good as Jane, while Trinder overdoes it as George – he sounds likes he’s watched too many Jimmy Stewart movies. The scene stealer is Leon Craig as Tom, the restaurant’s burly cook, who turns out to be a gushing Heartbreak Radio superfan.

Sheppard gives the show a buoyant staging, with playful choreography from Fabian Aloise and a robust rock band, led by Patrick Hurley, in the orchestra pit. Arnulfo Maldonado’s cantina set goes big with the neon beer signs, even if that’s not the Felices Sueños drink special (cue the Wilburys’ tune Margarita).

You’ll leave this musical happy, humming, but likely not moved. It’s ironic that, while Roy Orbison himself could bring a tragic gravity to such passing things as love affairs and romantic obsessions, In Dreams, which is about nothing less than mortality, feels oddly frivolous.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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