Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 22 – Nov 27, 2016
Original concept and stage play: Frank Howson, John Michael Howson
Dramaturg/Script Consultant: Carolyn Burns
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: David Campbell, Martin Crewes, Hannah Fredericksen, Bert LaBonte, Marney McQueen, Caroline O’Connor
Image by Brian Geach
In the musical Dream Lover, Bobby Darin is a nice guy with a career to be proud of. Undeniably talented, the Italian-American from New York’s Bronx county made it big in show business in the middle of the twentieth century, leaving behind an impressive catalogue of songs, but an uneventful life story. The show starts off slowly, with characters that take time to connect, and a doggedly polite plot that resists sensationalism, mindful of a need to honour the late star, thereby sacrificing opportunities for a greater sense of theatricality and humour. Our emotions are guided by the quietly simmering narrative, so even though all its musical numbers are strong, the viewing experience only becomes exuberant later in the piece when its dramatic stakes finally gain height.
The jukebox musical format is carefully and cleverly utilised here, with preexisting songs from Darin and his era, assembled and rearranged to form a surprisingly coherent and entertaining show. Set design is striking but inflexible, with an undiminishable glitz distracting from its many sombre scenes, although remarkably effective in its visual demarcation of space. The production boasts an outstanding cast, with quintessential showman David Campbell in the lead, overflowing with extraordinary charm and skill, stealing hearts in every melody. There are moments when Campbell seems restrained and overly cautious in his portrayal of a venerated hero, and occasional issues with sound balance can be disappointing, but his powerful presence, astonishing commitment and infectious passion, guarantee a spectacular night at the theatre. Also noteworthy are Martin Crewes as Darin’s manager Steve Blauner, and Hannah Fredericksen as Darin’s wife Sandra Dee, both captivating personalities who provide solid support with unequivocal artistic brilliance.
Bobby Darin is from a time when we knew to celebrate dignity. There is no dirt in Dream Lover, which will take many of today’s audiences by surprise. Scandalous biographies are where the money is; in entertainment today, whether reality TV, tell-all books or on any other conceivable digital configuration, we consume crudeness as a matter of habit. It is troubling that the kind of career that Darin had enjoyed, could cease to be valued and appreciated in this new economy of vulgarity and gossip on steroids, where music is routinely sold in a package along with celebrity humiliation. Dream Lover may be about the past, but its ability to remind us of better days offers a nostalgic glimmer of hope. It inspires a longing for something purer, and on days like these, it could be the best that we can cling to.