“Dream,” the new musical based on Johnny Mercer songs, really comes to life during a number director-choreographer Wayne Cilento has created to "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."
The sensational ensemble, all clad in black, sing the relatively unfamiliar verse building up steam with their feet in Cilento's inventive, rhythmically infectious steps.
When the great refrain arrives, they sing full out and the dancing is as highly charged as an old-fashioned steam engine chugging down a hill. (Typical of the show's flatfootedness, a steam engine actually does chug in, which is almost an insult to the energy the dancers have created.)
Unfortunately, this is the very last number in the show. Until then, except for a few bright spots, "Dream" has the quality of a '50s TV special, without anyone as galvanizing as, say, Perry Como. (Don't get me wrong, I always loved Perry Como. But his TV stardom hinged on the fact that he was one of the first to see the medium was about relaxation.)
Judging by the placement of her name, the star of "Dream" is apparently Lesley Ann Warren. She enters doing comedy shtick that doesn't make you laugh, then sings "Pardon My Southern Accent" so broadly it, too, falls flat. She constantly grins at the audience as if she knows how excited we must be to see her.
Warren did do one remarkable thing. Hers is the only rendition of "Moon River" in my experience that did not make me cry. Believe me, this is no small achievement.
"Dream" does feature many favorite standards the title song, "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Laura," "Satin Doll," "Skylark" . . . Name it. They've probably included it. That's part of the problem. There is no particular thematic thread to the show. One set of numbers takes place in the South, presumably Mercer's native Savannah. Another takes place in a tacky rendition of the Rainbow Room.
The settings barely matter. It's just a series of numbers sung and danced the dancing is generally exciting, the singing varies.
Margaret Whiting (whose father Richard was one of Mercer's collaborators) brings an authority to everything she sings. John Pizzarelli has a naturalness and charm that make his singing extremely engaging. One of the musical high points of the evening is his trio doing a dazzling version of "Jeepers Creepers."
The music has been smashingly arranged, and the secondary soloists perform their songs with considerable class, as they would in a good nightclub act. That final number shows the theatrical potential "Dream" seldom achieves. For the most part, "Dream" is just dreary.
Steve and Eydie. ''The Andy Williams Show.'' Mink stoles. The fox trot. Vodka stingers. The velveteen swivel seats in the nightclub of a Catskills hotel, circa 1965.
If any of these people, places or things stir aural memories of cocktail-lounge pop standards like ''Tangerine'' or ''Autumn Leaves'' or ''Moon River,'' if any of them take you back to those long-ago summer nights when you left out TV dinners for the kids and headed to the local dive to rhumba to the swinging sound of Sammy Crewe and the Nauticals, then you know exactly what the creators of ''Dream'' are up to.
Watching ''Dream,'' a revue inspired by the lyrics of Johnny Mercer that opened last night at the Royale Theater, is as retro as revisiting one of those kaleidoscopic numbers by the June Taylor Dancers. In grab-bag variety-show fashion, the revue's mix-and-match stars get gussied up in slinky satin gowns and white dinner jackets and drape themselves on baby grands and lampposts to croon 42 songs from Mercer's nonstop hit parade.
One after another, they roll off the musical assembly line: ''Blues in the Night.'' ''One for My Baby.'' ''That Old Black Magic.'' ''This Time the Dream's on Me.'' ''Too Marvelous for Words.'' ''Laura.'' Was Mercer, who at his death in 1976 left a legacy of hundreds of famous songs, responsible for the words to every ditty that a baby boomer's parents ever danced to? (Well, no: he couldn't take credit, after all, for ''Blame It on the Bossa Nova.'') For nostalgia buffs and lovers of Mercer's lyrics, smooth as polished marble, ''Dream'' may be a godsend, an animated jukebox of burnished melodies. But for virtually everyone else, the revue may seem pretty lame. Despite the Olympian exertions of its director and choreographer, Wayne Cilento, who has worked his heart out trying to infuse the evening with a high-kicking, finger-snapping intensity, ''Dream'' is little more than a throwback to those glitzy production numbers on ''The Carol Burnett Show.''
It has more in common, in fact, with the slightly cheesy salutes to bygone eras and dead or dying celebrities that are the bread and butter of televised award shows. This feeling is confirmed in the last segment of ''Dream,'' when a pair of dreadful 25-foot Oscar-look-alike statuettes, gleaming in the hot lights (and smeared with fingerprints), arrive onstage as adornments for the performance of Mercer's four Oscar-winning songs: ''In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening''; ''The Days of Wine and Roses''; ''Moon River,'' and ''On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.'' You may begin to fear that a big luau number is coming next.
Mercer, a brilliantly adaptive wordsmith who not only wrote songs with everyone from Hoagy Carmichael to Henry Mancini but was also a co-founder of Capitol Records, occupies a place of honor in the pantheon of pop lyricists. But how important his lyrics are is never really explored in ''Dream.'' The problem is you can't dance a rhyme scheme. ''He always knows where to put the right words,'' Irving Berlin once said of Mercer. This revue, however, never considers what they might mean.
The music is presented chronologically and divided into five segments from the 20's to the 60's, when Mercer was in his prime. It follows the pioneering model of ''Smokey Joe's Cafe,'' the long-running Broadway revue based on the music of Lieber and Stoller: zero narrative and only marginal attention paid to creating a logical thread for the progression of the numbers.
In this easy-listening format, only a few songs get optimal treatment. Oddly enough, some of the best are performed by players whose billing is in agate type.
''Satin Doll,'' for instance, is sung in dashing, Whiffenpoof-style harmony by the male members of the ensemble and danced exquisitely by the statuesque Susan Misner, whose grace and agility recall a young Juliet Prowse. The jaunty ''Hooray for Hollywood'' gets a terrific bounce from the tuxedoed quartet of Brooks Ashmanskas, Angelo Fraboni, Kevyn Morrow and Timothy Edward Smith. And a 15-piece onstage band conducted by Bryan Louiselle during the World War II sequence brings the brassy big band era boisterously to life.
The evening's stars, however, have lesser degrees of success. Lesley Ann Warren, forever the singing Cinderella to a generation that grew up on television in the 1960's, looks great in tight-fitting red satin, but after her third center-stage torch song, she begins to seem straitjacketed into a narrowly defined role.
She's clearly a performer with more range than she's allowed to show here. Given her pleasing voice and the kind of comedic skill she demonstrated in the movie version of ''Victor/Victoria,'' it would be surprising if her name did not come up as a replacement for Julie Andrews in the stage adaptation, which Raquel Welch is to join later in the spring.
John Pizzarelli, the gifted jazz guitarist, has the enjoyably cocky manner of Harry Connick Jr., which is perfect for songs like ''Fools Rush In'' and ''Jeepers Creepers.'' But like the rest of the Dreamers, he never establishes much of a rapport with the other performers, who seem at times to be headliners passing the baton back and forth at a celebrity telethon.
''Dream'' leans most heavily on the veteran pop singer Margaret Whiting to provide an emotional context for Mercer's work. Her father, Richard, was one of Mercer's songwriting partners, and she introduced some of the lyric writer's best-known songs, like ''That Old Black Magic.''
As a result, you do mist a bit at her first appearance, an old pro sitting at a table with a glass of Scotch and singing that sublime bar-closer, ''One for My Baby.''
Ms. Whiting is authentic, and each time she enters, the show becomes significant. Her throaty vocals have the texture of real life. And yet she looks a little lonely up on that cold, cold stage. Perhaps another veteran crooner or two to keep her company might have warmed up the proceedings.
''One for My Baby'' provides the kind of welling-up moment that ''Dream'' should have had a lot more of. Some theatergoers, for whom the playing of so many wonderful Mercer standards is entertainment enough, will not mind the production's ho-hum sets or chilly core.
So, if you go, close your eyes, let the music transport you back to that moonlit two-step on the dock by the bay, and then ''Dream'' may not be a letdown. Otherwise, you are left to conclude that the song Mercer wrote with Jerome Kern, ''I'm Old Fashioned,'' should be the evening's anthem.