DUSTY: THE MUSICAL
DUSTY: THE MUSICAL, The Production Company at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne to 4 December; then Adelaide Festival Centre 31 December 2016-22 January 2017. Photography: above - Amy Lehpamer; below - the company; below again - Todd McKenney and Virginia Gay
What a difference a decade makes. When this jukebox musical first saw an audience in 2006 it was dragging behind it the shudder-making title “Dusty – the Original Pop Diva”. It was also burdened by a twee and garrulous book, yet with wonderful Tamsin Carroll in the title role it still managed to get off the ground. That was largely of course because of the songs: some of the best ever sung by the greatest white soul singer of all time: Dusty Springfield.
Ten years on, under the banner of Melbourne’s remarkable Production Company (Jeanne Pratt and friends) the show is back. Except not exactly: this is a significantly different pop diva in the hands of director Jason Langley. The book (original by David Mitchell, Melvyn Morrow and John Michael Howson) has been trimmed and tidied and de-twee-d, while the onstage characters have been sharpened and focused. Consequently it’s selling out the Playhouse theatre, has had its run extended, and will move to Adelaide for a month in the new year. This fresh success is much deserved. And as usual, Sydney won’t get to see it.
Dusty is still a jukebox musical and none the worse for that the songs being what they are. The show is now, in its first half in particular, more pop-opera than musical with barely an interruption to the songs and music as they tell the story in apposite and lush orchestrations. (Musical director and also at the keyboards of the onstage band: Michael Tyack.)
And the story is a classic showbiz horror story. Dusty was born Mary O’Brien, a nice middle class (Irish) Catholic girl in nice, middle class south west London. She was bespectacled, plain, plump and, in the eyes of her parents, always second best to her older brother. She was a “tomboy” and dreamed of being famous and glamorous and a singer – better than Doris Day. In the show she is a touching and powerful presence in the form of 2015 WAAPA graduate Baylie Carson.
Dusty needs a Dusty, however, because the unmistakable blonde beehives, unique crashed-tarantula eye makeup and unforgettable smoky-soulful voice are at once trademark and Mt Everest for a performer. Casting Amy Lehpamer in the role was a master stroke. She’s an actor-singer who’s not only absorbed Dusty’s every dramatic hand gesture and flat south Ealing vowel but also has the pipes and ear to knock over the theatre with the songbook of a generation.
The songs...they run the full spectrum from young Mary’s early attempts to break out of the stifling saccharine of ’50s “sister” groups (“Seven Little Girls Sitting in the Back Seat”), through the yowling folkie harmonies of The Springfields (“Silver Threads and Golden Needles”) to the OTT echo-chamber magnificence of such hits as “I Only Want To Be with You”, “Little By Little”, and, “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me”.
The tortured, uncertain Catholic girl was never far from the surface however, despite – or perhaps because of – Dusty’s enormous success. Ironically the “Swinging 60s” and the era of “free love” were neither swinging nor free for her because she was a lesbian and artistically independent at a time when a woman without a producer/eminence gris/ringmaster/husband was barely tolerated in the music biz. As the alter and unter egos, Lehpamer and Carson make some of the show’s most poignant moments, not least their duet as first-half closer “Who Can I Turn To?”. Gorgeous.
It’s not a one-woman show, however, although mightily dependent on Lehpamer, and as Dusty’s confidants camp hairstylist queen Rodney and polar opposite, no-nonsense dresser Peg, Todd McKenney and Virginia Gay are at once comical, credible and big enough to compete with the wigs, gowns and hysteria as the star’s life takes on a crazed momentum of its own. At the other end of the scale, Mr and Mrs O’Brien (Tyler Coppin and Anne Wood) are politely sour and pastel grey in their well-mannered cruelty and lack of imagination. They don't occupy much stage time but their genteel incomprehension and disapproval is considerable and make it clear why Dusty later descended into self harm, self hatred and booze.
The women in Dusty’s life – passing chancers in the night, others around and loyal for years – are amalgamated into one: Reno. She also represents the soul music Dusty so worshipped and the black artists she – way ahead of her time – promoted and supported. And as Reno, Elenoa Rokobaro is a sweet-talking, honey-toned powerhouse (in Adelaide Chloe Zuel takes over the role).
Dusty’s turbulent life and times were at once intensely private and also awfully public. From the earliest appearances on Ready Steady Go! to her final incarnation as Granny Cool with the Petshop Boys, choreographer Michael Ralph and costume designer Isaac Lummis track the look and moves with affectionate and pinpoint accurate precision. There’s the ghastly prissiness of the late ’50s, the wild break-out of the ’60s with psychedelia, fab gear for ravers (rather than dressing like your mum and dad) and so on.
The company – with dancers progressing hilariously from tragic “white boy” dancing to what they saw and emulated when Motown transformed the UK, thanks to Dusty – is allowed to dazzle and fill the stage thanks to Anna Cordingley’s minimal but effective set: three levels with the band on top at the back, a bit of business with a mirror/door in the middle and a delicious empty space out front for the main action. And all lit, period style and theatrically by Trent Suidgeest.
When Dusty died in 1999 she was only 59 and after fighting it off once, she had finally succumbed to cancer. For the many young women in the audience at the Arts Centre 59 might seem ancient, but listen to the voice and watch her brought to life by Amy Lehpamer and you see and hear something unforgettable. Dusty had at least lived long enough to see her talent and contribution recognised by the music industry across the world, and the Queen gave her an OBE. This show, in this new and much improved incarnation adds to the legend. Recommended.
NB: I’ve had the privilege of working with Jason Langley, so I know he’s as good as I say he is.