America Comes To Sydney via St. Kilda

If America has a ‘Kissing Cousin’ it is Australia. Canada is geographically too close, and, too many of the blighters have French as their mother tongue. New Zealand is too small. South Africa is, well, too South African. England: No way! America had to fight a war to yank themselves free from the tyranny of their British masters.

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That pretty much leaves Australians as the natural kindred spirits of the good old U.S. of A. Unlike the Brits, one of the few times we do battle with the Yankee Doodle Dandies, other than for a skirmish or two over who had the dance after the last with our women folk during World War Two, is when we front up against them in Basketball. We dutifully lose of course, further endearing ourselves to them, and enhancing their concept of American exceptionalism.

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‘Dream Lover’ does much to deflate this myth of their untouchable exceptionalism. Australians do American as well as Americans do American. Whatever they are good at, so are we, despite our losses on the basketball court.

St. Kilda’s Frank Howson, lived, worked, loved, conquered, failed, and experienced exceptional highs and lows during his 9 years in the land of glitz and glamour. He realized his dreams, and eventually dreamed new ones to survive and grow. The vicissitudes of life in L.A. opened Howson’s mind to the workings of the American psyche.

I place early focus on Howson because I believe the script is everything. The rest follows, and can only succeed if the writing is strong.

Howson can write. His feature film ‘Remembering Nigel’, and his award winning short film ‘A Thin Life’ are both arthouse in style, non commercial in appeal, and likely to garner cult status.

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Importantly, they enjoy top shelf scripting. ‘Dream Lover’ also features tight, engaging, well paced and placed scripting, but it is unashamedly mainstream in style. Howson knows how to write in a manner to meet his audience halfway. His ‘Dream Lover’ script almost knocks on their front door.

Playing at The Lyric Theatre in Sydney’s Star Casino, the major effort audience members have to make, is to navigate a way through Sydney’s abundant traffic. Once the curtain goes up, the excellent cast makes it so easy to enjoy this splendid night of entertainment.

Bobby Darin’s story is fascinating, dramatic, inspiring, melancholy and very human. Darin had too much of everything. Too much talent; too many problems; too many complications; and too little time.

Dream Lover’s structure means it sinks or swims on the performance of its lead character. David Campbell, as Bobby Darin, swims as well as Michael Phelps did in Rio. (There’s that American exceptionalism again.) He is perfect in the role. By show’s end, he is Bobby Darin. The supporting cast are uniformly excellent, but you are always waiting to see Bobby Darin (Campbell) back on stage during the few moments he is not in view.

Caroline O’Connor is the mother in ‘Dream Lover’. She handles the dual roles of Bobby Darin’s homely mother, Polly, and Sandra Dee’s ambitious mother , Mary, with aplomb. If not for the strength of Campbell’s performance, O’Connor, in the role of Polly, would steal the accolades.

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Marney McQueen, as sister Nina, and Hannah Frederickson as Sandra Dee, both put in powerful, believable and strong performances as the other supportive women in Darin’s life. The duet number featuring O’Connor and McQueen is possibly the most beautifully emotional moment of the night.

The male supports, brother in law, Charlie (Bert Labonte) and manager, Steve Blauner (Martin Crewes), portray their characters well, but both are two dimensional compared to 3D David. The script ensures the major moments belong to the male lead. Labonte and Blauner play Ringo to Campbell’s John. Without Campbell’s magical performance as Bobby Darin, the audience would wonder what all the fuss was about.

One reviewer lambasted ‘Dream Lover’ for its weak portrayal of women, yet the three strongest performances, to me, other than for Campbell’s Bobby Darin, are that of McQueen, Frederickson and O’Connor. Sure, they are playing supportive women, but mothers, sisters and wives do have a habit of being supportive.

The staging is minimalist from go to woe. No intricate sets. The 18 piece band is onstage for the two and a half hours, yet never intrudes. A testament to the genius of set designer Brian Thomson. Simon Phillips directs the audience’s eye like a maestro. The use of a few odd pieces of furniture suffices to seamlessly establish scene locations. The stage looks beautiful in its simplicity. The action and silences move the story along.

Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography is fashioned by the era’s style. Full of energy, and light on for subtlety. I did feel the male dancers were not as impressive as their female counterparts. Not so David Campbell. Our star showed a certain finesse, shaking his booty in time to the many toe tapping tunes. Like Darin himself, Campbell is a song and dance man of the highest calibre.

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Tim Chappelle’s costumes are perfect. They express the era down to their last stitch. It is no surprise to learn he has won awards for his work in this area.

The band is superbly led by Daniel Edmonds. The 18 piece band generates an irresistible sound. The arrangements are so authentic to the big band era that, if Sinatra was still with us, he would have invited himself on stage for a song or two with Bobby, such was the energy generated by the intoxicating rhythms and instrumentation.

Bobby Darin was a complex man; in many ways, a tragic figure. He embodied his times. His potential was unlimited, his guises many, his dreams and hopes even more, yet his life was sadly truncated and cruel in its brevity. In many ways he mirrored the journey of his political leader, Bobby Kennedy. Successful at a young age. Disappearing from public view. Reinventing himself. Devoting his energies towards creating a kinder, more compassionate society. Standing up to bigotry, and finally being snuffed out before he had the opportunity to develop the maladies of an ageing male.

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There is great tragedy in Darin’s tale. I am sure the brief from the producer, John Frost, with N.S.W. State Government funding backing him, was to find the right people to create a show that will have its audience leaving in an upbeat mood. When the lead character neither needs, nor has the puff to blow out 38 candles, that is not an easy task. Frost chose wisely. The script elicits sympathy and emotion. The stage setting, choreography and costumes embrace our eyes. The quality of the songs, the singing and the band are an aural delight. Together they keep the audience buoyant.

‘Dream Lover’ is a bedfellow to other ‘Jukebox’ musicals, ‘Jersey Boys’ and ‘Georgie Girl’ No new bespoke numbers. Every tune, tried and true. In some ways they mirror the times. Don’t chance your arm too much. Producing any musical, by definition, is a huge risk. An Australian production about an American icon pushes the boundaries further than its bedfellows did. Good on it for that.

My quibbles are few. The opening number ‘Mack The Knife’ is full of verve, and immediately elevates the mood in the theatre. Unfortunately, with the band in full flight, David Campbell’s vocals are lost within the tone of the band. Lyrics become sounds, almost impossible to decipher. The sound mixer needs to temper the band when Campbell has to belt out a tune over them.

I would have made more of the physical difficulties Darin endured to get on stage. Seeing him struggle to literally walk on to a stage, then collapse once back in the wings, would add to the poignancy of this highly entertaining show.

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Exploring Darin’s period of self exile, filled with its turbulent reflection, would have been a perfect vehicle to allow the audience a deeper insight into the inner life of the man who was Bobby Darin. Ditto, how Darin and Dee worked through significant sexual issues would also have brought the audience closer to them. There is only so much you can fit in to any show encompassing a larger than life tale. Decisions made seem to be doing the trick. The Lyric is full every night, and the audiences are full of praise for what they have experienced.

‘Dream Lover’ will go gangbusters. Don’t be surprised if this Australian offering is warmly embraced on Broadway. Imagine the shock the Yankees will get when they find out it was conceived, developed and first performed in Australia, with an Australian cast.

‘Dream Lover’ is playing at The Lyric Theatre, Pyrmont Sydney, until the end of November. Hopefully it will come to its senses and find its way to Melbourne in 2017.

I saw the performance on the official opening night, Thursday October 6.

A splendid time was had by all.

Pics – Vanessa Allan

Pics – Raija Sunshine


Rocky Dabscheck is a musician and a writer.

‘Rocky and The Two Bob Millionaires’ is his band.

‘Stoney Broke and The Hi Spenders’ published by Sidharta is his novel.

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