Dream Lover – the Bobby Darin Musical review (Lyric Theatre, Sydney)


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.

Dream Lover is at the Lyric Theatre, Sydney until November 27. Images by Brian Geach

12 responses to “Dream Lover – the Bobby Darin Musical review (Lyric Theatre, Sydney)

  1. Saw the Sunday matinee today and the entire audience gave the show a hugely well deserved standing ovation at the end. Maybe that happened each performance but, in over 40 years of dedicated theatre-going here and in the UK, I have seen some truly magical performances in many genres but today’s was the only one where I can recall the ENTIRE audience that I could see in the Stalls were up on their feet and applauding loudly at the final curtain. David Campbell is such a wonderful talent – what a singer! what an actor! So proud he is an Aussie star. Long may he prosper. Everyone in the cast today was pitch-perfect and gave it their all. What a collection of wonderful, sensitive, witty, energetic, brilliantly talented singers, dancers and musicians! So proud of them all and I say a big Thankyou from me, for a really memorable couple of hours.

  2. Just want to begin by saying this was the biggest pile of balls I ever saw. I cannot believe that such a pale imitation of a Las Vegas floor show has managed to get this far as a theatrical production. Hang on.. …that is exactly why – oops I never really cottoned onto that until now – its so obvious.
    This whole escapade is such rubbish – it is not evocative of anything but some pallid nostalgic eighties version of the 1960s – complete with LED lights, glitter set and day glo costumes. I can not believe I paid to see this crap. May it sink like the ordinary junk it is.

  3. A tour de force by the multi talented David Campbell channeling the multi talented Bobby Darin. Excellent ensemble cast with great dancing, singing, acting and a show stealing big band and of course those classic Darin standards throughout the show. Full of energy and vitality a fantastic musical bio of one of the all time greats of rock and roll and popular music. As Sammy Davis Jr said “the one person he would never follow on stage was Bobby Darin.” David Campbell has shown he is another.

    1. I went with a friend. We loved the show.
      David Campbell is a wonderful talent , great voice, acted the role excellently.
      Great big band sound.
      The cast were wonderful supports.
      I am sorry about some of the reviews, some reasonable , some not so.

  4. As a lifetime fan of Bobby Darin I loved the show, Ok lots of sentimentality bordering on the maudlin, but a great couple of hours and and the fabulous songs, not the Jersey Boys but hey,I loved it and have the program the cd and the t shirt to prove it.The love of my life refused to get the fridge magnet!But hey I might just sneak it in when I roll up for a second time

  5. Very vsry good show. Highlights were the big band, the set, the lighting, Campbell’s performance and the cameo by the singer who played Darin’s first love, Connie Francis.

    While Darin was undoubtedly a great musical talent, I’ve never been convinced he converted that into a great musical career. He was there at the start of rock and roll but morphed into wishy washy pop and Sinatra lite. In the late 60s he attempted folk, with his fine interpretation of Tim Hardin’s If I Were a Carpenter. Hardin returned the favor, recording Darin’s Simple Song of Freedom. Darin’s social conscience was heartfelt, but he was no Dylan. Rather sadly, he spent his last years reprising his early 6os lounge music act, in order to raise some money for his son’s future.

    This is all captured in the honest script for the play. Darin’s life was good drama fodder.

    I’d like to see the life and career of Darin’s contemporary, the late, great Sam Cooke, dramatised. He was a greater talent who never wasted it.

  6. I haven’t seen the show yet but was pretty appalled to read Ben Neutze’s report of white performers with afro wigs performing in section of show relating to Bobby Darin’s, via Robert Kennedy, commitment to civil rights for black Americans . And we only manage one black performer in this sequence !! Shocking !

  7. Ben, you are right on the money! I went and saw Dream Lover last weekend and agree it was very well done. The whole cast deserved the standing ovation they received and David Campbell deserves special praise. I hope it goes onto Broadway. It needs to keep living.

  8. This was an extraordinarily entertaining show, from beginning to end. David Campbell was superb. The whole show was wonderful to watch… The dancing ,singing music and costumes were really fabulous. Exactly what a musical should deliver.

  9. Have always loved Bobby Darin – a fabulous entertainer, the perfect subject for a musical bash. So hope it does well and follows with seasons around Australia – especially Perth.


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