Dream direction, dream music and dream casting align to make world premiere Australian musical Dream Lover a theatrical dream come true.
In classic 1957 musical The Music Man, lead character Harold Hill sings 7 songs; in Dream Lover, Bobby Darin sings 34. Over and above the wonderful contributions of an army of designers and performers, David Campbell’s phenomenal performance as Bobby Darin is an extraordinary achievement. Barely off stage all night, Campbell’s charismatic presence and nuanced characterisation make nice guy Darin into a compelling figure. Campbell’s vocals range from tender to smooth to powerhouse, topped off with an incredible belt in 11 o’clock number “Who Can I Turn To?”.
The latest entry in the bio-musical category, Dream Lover is not only blessed with an extensive catalogue of sensational songs but also has a meaty story to tell. The confidence, vision and flair of director Simon Phillips ensure this story is told with slick sophistication.
Based on the original concept and stage play of John Michael Howson and Frank Howson, the new musical has been adapted for the stage by Phillips and frequent collaborator Carolyn Burns. The narrative fairly zips along, deftly fleshing out supporting characters and delivering dramatic twists without a hint of melodrama.
The contribution of musical supervisor Guy Simpson is intrinsically linked to this creation, with many songs interspersed with dialogue to create modern musical scenes. The epic song list for the show contains some 46 titles. Big hits like “Splish Splash,” “Mack the Knife,” “Beyond the Sea” and “Dream Lover” are performed in full, but it is the carefully chosen snippets of songs that give the show additional colour.
Musical director Daniel Edmonds brings Simpson’s orchestrations and vocal arrangements to life as he presides over a smoking hot 17-piece big band. The value of the musicians is signified by the all too rare inclusion of their headshots and biographies in the souvenir program.
The musicians perform on stage, arranged in a glossy bandstand that is a key element of Brian Thompson’s set design. A series of overhead arches brings to mind the Hollywood Bowl, and a multitude of scenes are seamlessly created downstage with the simple addition of items of furniture.
Lighting design, by Paul Jackson, is fundamentally linked to scenic design, with hundred of globes embedded in the set. The range of different looks and moods that Jackson is able to achieve is quite amazing.
The fact that the show has a single set is put to good use in a key sequence that opens act two. At the height of his concert fame, Darin’s marriage unravels as he drags wife Sandra Dee on a tour on which he performs song after song at venue after venue that all look the same.
The close collaboration of the creative team is further revealed by the importance of the work of costume designer Tim Chappel in the story telling. With a fixed scenic design, it is the ever-changing fashions and hairstyles that convey the time period, the degree of Darin’s success and the style of venue where Darin performs. Chappel maintains a sense of naturalism in the daywear, then unleashes stylised glamour for the stage costumes. Highlights include the ostentatious feathered showgirl outfits in Vegas, and the indigo hued stars and stripes overall for Darin’s later era.
Likewise, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth creates dance that reflects the various decades and formats. With his trademark precision and wit, Hallsworth propels Darin’s career from cheesy television dancers to flashy Vegas showgirls, and from dapper, black-clad Fosse disciples to cheerfully enthusiastic 1970s dancers.
The show begins with its finale. Damaged by childhood illness, Darin’s heart gives way, leading to his untimely death at 37. His spirit reunited with his mother Polly, the story rewinds to the plucky Harlem household where Darin was raised.
Early exposition is briskly entertaining thanks to the presence of international stage star, and national treasure, Caroline O’Connor as former showgirl Polly. A ghostly Darin watches his younger self being cared for and encouraged by mother Polly (O’Connor), sister Nina (Marney McQueen) and her partner Charlie (Bert LaBonte). “As Long As I’m Singing” is an early example of an integrated song that propels the action along.
The show wastes no time establishing Darin’s success. For a clever, highly talented man with a ticking clock hanging over his life, “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” is an ideal mantra.
While the spotlight never strays from Darin, concise writing and savvy design create a clear and affecting arc for Sandra Dee. Talented singing actress Hannah Fredericksen is set to be an “overnight” success as Dee, taking the character from sheltered starlet to drunken neglected wife to confidently rehabilitated divorcée.
O’Connor doubles her value, also portraying Dee’s driven stage mother Mary Douvan. O’Connor successfully establishes two distinct characters, contrasting the warmth of gutsy battler Polly with the icy heart of snooty stage mother Mary.
As Darin’s good-natured long-term manager Steve Blauner, ever youthful stage veteran Martin Crewes creates sparks opposite Campbell and O’Connor. As Darin and Blauner celebrate the long awaited booking at Copacabana, Campbell and Crewes raise the energy with terrific duet “The Best Is Yet To Come.”
LaBonte and McQueen give masterfully unshowy supporting performances. As Darin’s father figure Charlie, LaBonte brings palpable warmth as he establishes Charlie’s tender admiration and unwavering affection for Darin. McQueen’s role is a slow burn, a seemingly minor character who maintains a gently supportive presence until a climactic scene in act two that transpires after Darin has decided that the next frontier to conquer is politics.
Direction, writing, music and performance reach a highpoint in this crucial scene, in which a long-kept family secret is revealed. While many of the audience may already be aware of the twist, the scene is played with such raw truth that it cannot help but be affecting. McQueen and O’Connor sing the gorgeous ballad “More,” and Campbell’s Darin inconsolably deflates before our eyes.
While appearing in an ever-changing myriad of guises, the highly experienced members of the ensemble have plenty of opportunities to let their talents and their natural stage personas shine through.
Dream Lover was always going to be a toe-tapping nostalgia trip. The theatrical integrity of the production and Campbell’s powerhouse performance make it a must see musical.
Dream Lover plays at Sydney Lyric Theatre until 13 November 2016.
The Dream Lover cast recording is available on iTunes.
Photos: Brian Geach