Derek Keeling was a young man of 22 when he went to an audition of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, a place where non-equity actors can audition for a multitude of community theatres. It was there that a gentleman who owned a theatre in Michigan came up to Keeling and offered him a job.
“He told me, ‘We’re doing “Grease” this summer,” said Keeling. “I know you’re going to be doing that show your whole life, and I want to be the first to cast you.’”
That theatre owner turned out to be quite the visionary. Keeling has been joined at the hip with that iconic musical, having performed it in 49 of 50 states in his career (sans Alaska). He also received the opportunity of a lifetime, taking third place on the network television show “Grease – You’re the One that I Want” on NBC in 2006.
Now Keeling is returning to the Bay Area, not to perform “Grease,” but he’s certainly staying in that early 1960’s genre. Center Repertory Theatre opens its newest production “Life Could Be a Dream” on Friday, Aug. 29th in Walnut Creek. It pairs Keeling’s sound with another theatre maker known for this genre, jukebox musical guru Roger Bean, who wrote and directed the show.
For Keeling, who plays hunky teen heartthrob Skip, this latest show is a continuation of much of the sound he has developed over the years. In addition to all of his time playing a multitude of roles in “Grease,” including Danny Zuko on Broadway, he also landed another coveted role in his career, playing Johnny Cash in the national tour of “Million Dollar Quartet,” which came through the Bay Area back in 2012.
“I love that kind of music, it got engrained in me,” said Keeling. “After I saw the show, I told my manager that I wanted to be Elvis, but it never occurred to me to sing Johnny Cash music. I had all the Elvis music prepared for six months, but when the time came to sing Johnny Cash, I learned the chord progressions to Ring of Fire and sang it.
“I got the job two or three days later. I didn’t know I had that Johnny Cash sound and some of his natural qualities.”
Someone who knows very well what kind of voice Keeling has is Bean, whose credits include some very popular doo-wop jukebox musicals, most notably “The Marvelous Wonderettes.” The ability to work with Keeling on the show again, after having worked with him in Los Angeles, was a great opportunity.
“He’s great and he’s got so much charisma, it spills off the stage,” said Bean. “When we did the show before, we didn’t have that much time to work together, and this version is new and different than we’ve done before.
“He’s enormously talented and this show is a good fit for him. He understands this guy and can really inhabit him well.”
The show has certainly evolved since Keeling first entered the fray. He was able to bring a strong musicianship to the role, while he and Bean certainly saw this evolution through a similar lens. When Keeling wanted to bring more of his actual guitar playing into the show, Bean was very excited.
“It’s kinda fun the way Roger works, he is such an open-minded writer who knows where we will be in a month from now,” said Keeling.
The show has very humble beginnings. It premiered in 2009 in Los Angeles before moving to the New York Musical Theatre Festival. After playing a tiny, 99-seat space on Santa Monica Boulevard, Keeling is thrilled to be doing the show where it can flourish – in the vast Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. It’s a space where those 1960’s feel good hits, such as “Fools Fall in Love,” “Tears on My Pillow,” “Runaround Sue,” “Earth Angel and “Stay” can soar.
“There wasn’t enough room to do the production we are doing here,” said Keeling. “We are able to do it with a live full band and add more music to the show.
“We are kind of taking the show and upping it. “
For albums and videos of Derek Keeling, visit www.derekkeeling.com
To purchase Derek’s album “Long Road Home,” click here.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Center REP Theatre Company presents “Life Could be a Dream.”
Written and Directed by Roger Bean
Aug. 29th – Oct. 4th
Tickets range from $42 – 63
1601 Civic Drive
Walnut Creek, CA 94596
For Tickets, call (925) 943-7469 or visit www.centerrep.org