Musicals, Reviews, Stage

Dusting off the hits: Dusty The Musical Review (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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It’s been over a decade since the homegrown hit jukebox musical Dusty first graced our stages with a successful national tour starring Tamsin Carroll and Deni Hines. This new version, directed by Jason Langley, is an entertaining and kinetic return to the hit songs of Dusty Springfield.

The musical charts only major points and themes in Dusty’s career, from her childhood longing to reinvent herself as a star, to actualising that dream, her love interests with women, and the challenges in her later life with alcohol, drugs and cancer. It also covers the way she shaped her own musical style, moving from glossy ’60s pop to her hugely influential blue-eyed soul recordings, finding her own voice along the way.

While the book (by John-Michael Howson, David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow) is relatively thin, once you connect with how economical and fast-paced the storytelling is, you are easily swept up with the strength of the performances and the songs. Virtually every moment in the first act is told through song with few moments of unsung dialogue. The result is a propulsive energy that diverts your gaze from some of the show’s weaknesses.

The staging is sparse but cleverly used, relying on the solid singing performances rather than elaborate set pieces: a two-level stage, with a large mirrored closet and a nine-piece live band atop the second level, leaving the lower level as a blank canvas which the cast bring to life, with the help of just a few props.

The Production Company has assembled a solid cast for this incarnation of Dusty. Amy Lehpamer (having just finished the touring production of Sound of Music only a few weeks ago) confidently takes on the lead role. Lehpamer has a powerful voice with just a touch of that warm Dusty tone, and does justice to the material as she recreates Dusty’s looks and songs through the decades, right up to her 1987 hit with The Pet Shop Boys, What Have I Done to Deserve This?

Lehpamer is accompanied by a quartet of supporting roles, Todd McKenney as Rodney, the camp hair stylist, Virginia Gay as her dresser and best friend Peg, Elenoa Rokobaro as Dusty’s fictional muse and love interest Reno, and Baylie Carson as young ‘Dusty’, Mary O’Brien.

Some of the characters are more successful than others — although that’s often just because some have little stage time. Not so for newcomer Baylie Carson, who as a young Dusty shines with several musical numbers, not least of which is her soaring duet with Lehpamer, Who Can I Turn To, which closed out the first act leaving the opening night audience wanting more.

Jukebox musicals live or die by the strength of the music, and Dusty has hits in spades. All the standards are here: I Only Want To Be With You, The Look of Love, I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself, Son of a Preacher Man, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me plus, many more — and they’re gorgeously performed, crossing from heartfelt solo moments through to energetic numbers featuring the entire chorus.

Sure, Dusty isn’t the most profound night of musical theatre, and there are a few obvious weaknesses. But it succeeds by being shamelessly and infectiously entertaining. 

[box]The Production Company’s Dusty The Musical plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until December 4, before touring to Adelaide from December 31[/box]

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