Once Upon a Dream: Theater Review
The Steven Van Zandt-directed musical tells the story of 1960s hitmakers The Rascals -- with plenty of spin but sorely lacking production value.
Steven Van Zandt’s Once Upon a Dream, which opened Tuesday night at New York's Richard Rodgers Theatre, is more like “The Impossible Dream.” It’s a good concert, but a poor theatrical production. The fact that the show made it to Broadway is testament to the cult of personality around Van Zandt, who’s played a New Jersey gangster on The Sopranos and is Bruce Springsteen’s longtime sideman in the E Street Band.
Van Zandt’s love of ’60s garage rock -- he hosts the syndicated “Underground Garage” radio show -- certainly led him to the Rascals, whose music and back-story are the focus of Once Upon a Dream, named for their 1968 album.
Comprised of three Jersey Boys and one Westchester native, the Rascals burst onto the New York rock scene in the mid-‘60s with a sound that was dubbed “blue-eyed soul” -- a misnomer for the Rascals (or the Young Rascals, as they were originally called), who are Italian and have brown eyes. Still, they were more R&B than rock, thanks to lead singer Felix Cavaliere’s soul-drenched vocals.
The show begins with a brief prologue of Once Upon a Dream and a clip of Ed Sullivan introducing the band. The curtain goes up and the original four Rascals -- augmented by a bassist, second keyboardist and three background singers -- break into “It’s Wonderful,” a Top 20 hit from 1967, released just after the Summer of Love. This is followed by a favorite, “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long,” also from ’67. Eddie Brigati then belts out the lead on the Phil Spector-ish “What Is The Reason,” yet another ’67 number.
With the band and audience warmed up, the narration begins. All four Rascals tell their story in pre-taped “Interviews” that are actually written by Van Zandt. “It all started in my parents basement in Pelham, New York,” Cavaliere says on a huge screen above the band that’s also used for visual effects. We learn that Joey Dee, who led the Starliters, and co-wrote the “Peppermint Twist,” gave them their first break. Three of the Rascals – Cavaliere, Brigati and guitarist Gene Cornish -- were hired by Dee at separate times. They later hooked up with drummer Dino Danelli.
After renditions of “You Better Run” (their second Top 20 hit from 1966) and “Carry Me Back” from 1969, the Rascals go into a run of songs they covered -- “Slow Down,” “Mickey’s Monkey/Turn on Your Love Light” and “Too Many Fish in the Sea” from their first two albums -- leading up to the show’s first genuine highlight, their version of the Olympics’ “Good Lovin’,” a No. 1 smash that put the band on the map in 1966.
Just prior to this crowd-pleaser -- audience members danced and gave the band a standing ovation -- actors playing the ‘60s Rascals on the video screen are gently persuaded by a record company executive to perform a song written by two women (Pam Sawyer and Laurie Burton). This slab of rockin’ soul, “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” gave the Rascals their first radio hit in ’65.
Van Zandt’s pal from The Sopranos, Vinny Pastore, who shows up periodically in the narrative, reminds us that, at this point, the band “started writing their own songs and the dam broke.” The lead track from their third album, Groovin’, in 1967 makes that clear. Written by Cavaliere and Brigati, it opens with birds chirping and features tambourine and a bongo beat as the band sings about an idyllic Sunday afternoon romance: “That would be ecstasy, you and me endlessly.” ‘Groovin’” became their second No. 1 hit and established the Rascals as original songwriters and performers, not just rehashers of others bands’ material.
Though they had little connection to the psychedelic revolution happening on the West Coast, and especially in San Francisco, the Rascals tried their hands at trippier songs as the decade neared it’s penultimate year, 1969. Unlike another New York band, the Vanilla Fudge, psychedelia wasn’t really their thing, which is proven by the show’s weakest section of songs and narration. “The whole ’60s was a runaway train,” Brigati attempts to explain. “We started stretching our wings musically to see how high we could fly.”
Not very high, it turned out, though one song in this section, “A Beautiful Morning” (No. 3, 1968), stands out. Similar to “Groovin’,” it’s a positive, harmony-heavy, horn-driven number that personifies the idealistic notions of the ‘60s peace and love era. (The band does not use horns and instead employs a keyboardist, Mark Alexander. He plays the horn parts on synthesizer, which doesn’t do the songs justice. They should have sprung for a horn section.)
Several songs later, the lights shine brightly on Brigati as he delivers “How Can I Be Sure,” one of the band’s few ballads, which soared to No. 4 right in the middle of the Summer of Love. “How can I be sure,” he sings in a falsetto, “in a world that’s constantly changing.” Embroidered like a Bacharach-David tune with piano, accordion, horns and a lilting chorus, it’s Brigati’s big moment of the show, and the fans erupted with another ovation.
After explaining that “discrimination wasn’t acceptable to the Rascals” and that the group often toured with black acts, they launch into their third and final No. 1 hit, the protest song “People Got to Be Free,” which prompted the crowd to leap to their feet once again, dance and sing along.
As the ‘60s ended, so did the Rascals’ original quartet when Brigati suddenly left the group. In the last reenactment, the actor Rascals offer numerous reasons for the split: “We had substance and popularity and then it all went dark”; “there were drugs everywhere”; “no one looked out for us”; “we had lawsuits” and so on. But we learn little about what really happened to make the Rascals disappear for four decades. The last two songs (one’s an encore) prove to be anti-climactic.
Directed by Van Zandt and Marc Brickman, Once Upon a Dream fails to dig deep into the rise and fall of one of the ‘60s most popular groups. Using the band members to spin their story prevents an honest telling of it. Clearly the directors don’t have a documentary in mind; otherwise they would have interviewed others like Sid Bernstein, their original manager, and surviving players from Atlantic Records, who signed them. Tributes from other musicians, like Springsteen, would have been welcome. Van Zandt’s book is sloppy, wanders, loses chronology and makes the guys appear less intelligent than they most likely are.
As a band, the Rascals sound fine. There’s something to be said for not working hard for so many years. With less wear and tear than many others groups from the period, Cavaliere and Brigati preserved their voices; Cavaliere’s remains one of the most distinctive in rock. Cornish distinguishes himself with numerous guitar solos and Danelli is a wiry wonder behind the drum kit.
There’s no set design to speak of -- just a stage full of instruments. The only other distraction is the big-screen effects, which are at times garish and jarring. It takes until the last few songs to see images of the band from the ‘60s -- why wait so long? A few vintage clips would have been clever and appropriate.
It’s nice that the Rascals have reunited after 40 years. Bands do that all the time. They just don’t try to turn it into a Broadway show.