Is there a more fickle theatrical form than the biographical jukebox musical? Most of them manage to find an audience, but very few of them feel like satisfying nights of entertainment.
Compressing a whole life of highs and lows into a two-and-a-half-hour piece of theatre, packed with musical numbers, is a difficult enough juggling act. Then you have to shape the narrative so that your subject’s greatest hits will emerge naturally, and you almost always have to deal with their death, and still send the audience out on a high.
(The easy solution is usually a light and bright megamix to bring the audience back to their feet and bopping along back to the car park.)
Dream Lover – The Bobby Darin Musical is a rare thing: an entirely homegrown biographical musical that, at last night’s world premiere, really worked.
The book, by Frank Howson and John Michael Howson, along with Simon Phillips and Carolyn Burns, is pretty watertight; well-paced, securely structured, and packed with killer songs, such as Mack the Knife, Beyond the Sea, Dream Lover, Splish-Splash, and If I Were a Carpenter.
The creative team have struck dramatic gold with Bobby Darin as their subject. The American singer/songwriter/movie star was diagnosed with a serious heart condition as a young boy. Doctors advised him he wouldn’t live long, so he threw himself into his work and life with extraordinary energy throughout the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, knowing it could all end at any point.
Then there’s his headline-grabbing marriage with young Hollywood star Sandra Dee, a shocking family secret, and his high-profile advocacy for civil rights.
The book lithely leaps through certain chapters of Darin’s life — we really don’t need to know how Darin got his first record deal, so the writers leave those details out — and slows down for moments of pathos when appropriate. The writers even manage to deal with Darin’s death in a way that feels dramatically satisfying, and doesn’t involve a back-from-the-grave megamix.
In saying that, the dialogue leans too heavily on cliches, and is a little too neat. It needs to be injected with some quirks and the kind of surprises and imperfections that make a world real.
But in moving this story from the page to the stage, director Simon Phillips, the cast and entire creative team, have created an electrifying and surprisingly moving piece of theatre. This is Australia’s musical theatre “dream team”, and they don’t disappoint.
There’s no “out of town tryout” on this show, but it’s come together gorgeously. It whips from moment to moment with visual pizazz, thanks to Brian Thomson’s chic and sparkling set, and Academy Award-winner Tim Chappel’s flashy, pitch-perfect period costumes. Andrew Hallsworth’s eccentric, ’50s and ’60s-inspired choreography all but steals the show, while the superb 18-piece on-stage big band (under Daniel Edmonds’ musical direction) gives the whole show its drive and swagger.
Musical theatre and cabaret star turned TV personality, David Campbell is absolutely dazzling as Bobby, gracefully and coolly sliding in and out of knockout musical number after knockout musical number. It’s a massive role, and god only knows how he manages to perform the show eight times a week while continuing to host two and a half hours of live TV each morning on Today Extra.
Like everybody on stage, he elevates the dialogue substantially with commitment and pure heart.
There’s one scene in the second act in which Bobby learns that the two people he loved and trusted most had been lying to him for his entire life. If you’ve read much about the production, you know what the twist is. And you also know that Campbell has experienced an identical discovery in his life. It’s an intensely moving moment and something so personal for Campbell, it feels almost voyeuristic to watch his quietly tormented reaction to this bombshell.
Relative newcomer Hannah Fredericksen stars opposite Campbell as Sandra Dee, and proves herself to be a major new star of musical theatre. She lights up the stage at least as much as Campbell, unleashing a powerhouse vocal performance and a dramatic sensitivity well beyond her years and experience.
Caroline O’Connor lends the production even more weight in her dual roles as Darin’s “mother” Polly Cassotto, and Dee’s mother Mary Douvan, while there are fine supporting performances from Marney McQueen, Bert LaBonte, Martin Crewes, and Brendan Godwin (who shares his role as Young Bobby with Nicholas Cradock and Kyle Banfield). Even ensemble member Phoebe Panaretos shines in a brief appearance as Connie Francis.
Dream Lover isn’t perfect: the relationship between the very damaged Sandra and Bobby is well on its way to becoming something quite lovely and real, but a few missteps in the staging throw things off balance in some moments. And the impact of Darin’s relationship with Robert Kennedy, and his commitment to civil rights for black Americans, is undercut by some slightly clumsy writing, and the fact that there’s only one non-white performer on stage (and at one point, a whole bunch of white performers sing about freedom while wearing afros).
But this is a very solid piece of home-grown entertainment which transports the audience into a world of glamour populated by real and fragile people, and tells an extraordinary showbiz story.
To do all of that, without a megamix, is genuinely impressive.