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Festival Theatre, Sat 31 Dec.
Dusty Springfield was born into a strict Catholic family as Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien. She was considered a plump and plain redhead with enough musical talent to accompany her older brother at family show and tells. Mary, however, had dreams beyond her station. She knew she had a great singing voice – better even than her idol and role model for much of what came later – Doris Day, and she never let go of the vision she had of herself as a famous singer.
Mary eventually metamorphosed into Dusty and after a short, successful stint with her brother in the folk-pop group, The Springfields, Dusty decided the time was right to launch her own career. Success was immediate. I Only Want To Be With You was the first of a string of hits that took her to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. But it was in America that Dusty heard the sound that she had always imagined would be her style, and its roots were in soul and Motown.
So began a long and fruitful liaison with black American artists, and Dusty became something of a promoter of Motown artists in the UK. She was responsible for bringing The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye to British audiences.
But Dusty struggled with fame and was forever plagued by the demons of self-doubt. In Dusty The Musical, the alter ego of plain Mary O’Brien (played by Baylie Carson) bobs up frequently as her conscience, support and guide, alternately encouraging and admonishing her. Alcohol nearly ruins everything but with the help of her hairdresser and lifelong friend Rodney (Todd McKenney), Dusty is able to salvage her life and career and managed to get back into the charts in the late ‘80s.
It’s an intriguing story of yet another artist who yearned for fame but couldn’t cope with it once they had it. Dusty The Musical is as much narrative theatre as it is a musical. It’s a wonderful production with great musical arrangements, superb set, and the canny lighting and gorgeous costumes are visually stunning.
Presented by Melbourne’s The Production Company, many of the talented cast played multiple roles. Adelaide’s own Paul Blackwell did a brilliant job as Dusty’s father, a tacky Dusty impersonator in a cheap night club, and Memphis Records producer Jerry Wexler. Jackie Rees is suitably stuffy as Dusty’s Mum and in a neat twist of irony gets to play the role of an outspoken music industry critic and deliver a few spiteful ‘I told you so’ type observations. Chloe Zuel was sexy and loving as Dusty’s lover, Reno, and her voice was a standout in a cast where everyone could sing. Todd McKenney and Virginia Gay were endearing as Rodney and Peg – her personal attendants who were there with her at the beginning, and again when she needed comforting at the end. Although exuding much flair, Rodney’s script meant he was sometimes lumbered with the unfortunate responsibility of drawing the cheap laughs.
The show’s musical highlight, for me, was an all-cast number sung after Dusty’s funeral. This sharing of emotion from her parents, Reno and Dusty’s many friends was sung in beautiful harmony and was deeply moving.
Amy Lehpamer looked and sounded fantastic as Dusty. Apart from the physical demands of simply having to sing so many songs, she played the dualities of Dusty’s character to perfection: fragility and strength, confidence and anxiety, adult star and needy child.
Where does Dusty Springfield sit in the pop-rock pantheon? Rolling Stone has her in the top 100 singers of all time. Elton John simply says she was the best white singer ever. It was telling that near play’s end Dusty herself still needs validation and asks “Was I really that good?” There were a half dozen or so mega hits that everyone will recognise, and a string of other songs that are already fading. What Dusty did she did really well – ‘how can a white woman sound so black?’ – but what Dusty The Musical makes clear is that her worth in the history of popular music was not just about her songs and her marvellous voice. Her role as music producer and promoter of black artists and their music to the UK and beyond was just as significant.
Dusty is a great musical and a great story worth seeing.
Dusty The Musical continues at Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, at various times, until Sun 22 Jan.
Book at BASS on 131 246 and bass.net.au. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.
Click HERE to read The Clothesline’s interview with Virginia Gay (Peg).
Images courtesy of Jeff Busby