A dream team of Australian theatre heavyweights are coming together to tell the story of American crooner Bobby Darin
Against the odds, Dream Lover is the second homegrown jukebox production to hit Sydney stages this year, after Georgy Girl in April. Produced by musical theatre behemoth Gordon Frost Organisation, and based on a book by Frank and John Michael Howson, it condenses the life and catalogue of American singer, songwriter and actor Bobby Darin, whose best-known hits include ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘Beyond the Sea’. David Campbell, who established himself as a musical theatre star with his lead performance in Shout! The Legend of the Wild One, plays Darin.
The musical takes us through Darin’s difficult childhood (growing up in a poor family in East Harlem, raised by his grandmother who he believed to be his mother), his road to fame, his tumultuous relationship with Sandra Dee, his political activism (including his involvement in Robert F. Kennedy’s political campaign in the 1960s), and finally his early death at age 37.
Working with a fairly streamlined book and succinct scenes (typical of the jukebox musical form) director Simon Phillips keeps a cracking pace in the first act. The opening scenes blend seamlessly together – tracking Darin’s journey from a young child who dreams of being a rock star, to his first hit, ‘Splish Splash’. The rapidity with which the story unfolds amplifies our sense of Darin’s whirlwind career.
While some significant life events only get a passing mention (the death of Darin’s grandmother, for example, is given summary treatment; and the handling of Dee’s sexual abuse trauma is brushed over to a disconcerting effect), by the second act the pace has slowed to allow more emotional scenes (Darin’s discovery of his family’s secret; his touching post-divorce duet with Dee) to settle. It’s testament to the cast and Phillips’ direction that despite little opportunity for character development, key moments like these land emotionally.
More problematic is the treatment of racial politics: while the musical seems happy to make hay from Darin’s support of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, its treatment of African American experience is perfunctory. Opportunities for meaningful representation are passed up (a scene in which Bobby refuses to headline the Copa unless his black support act is allowed to go on seems like a good chance for a number by said singer), and there is only one key character of colour on stage.
But this musical is squarely focused on Darin – at the expense of key people and issues around him.
Campbell is effervescent playing one of his idols, and his performance matches charisma with vocal control. His portrayal of Darin’s journey feels authentic – from young, ambitious, performer, to a man wounded by divorce and family betrayal, and struggling to find direction with his career. The fact that Campbell and Darin had so much in common in terms of their family situation and upbringing makes his performance of Darin’s discovery of his parentage that much more touching.
Caroline O’Connor, returning to Australian stages after recently originating a role in Broadway-bound musical Anastasia, gives a stunning vocal performance and compelling portrayal of Darin’s resilient and caring ‘mother’. O’Connor also plays Dee’s stern and emotionally aloof stage mother, and her embodiment of this dichotomy is expert.
Marney McQueen plays Darin’s biological mother with a nuanced vulnerability, across from Bert LaBonte’s affable Charlie. Hannah Fredericksen, as Dee, is a rich vocal match for Campbell, but also handles the transition from film star ingénue to bitter and hurting ex-wife with ease.
Inherently, music is the driving force in a jukebox musical. Here, with the powerful sound from an onstage 18-piece band, arrangements by Guy Simpson, and Daniel Edmond’s cohesive musical direction, the music soars.
Dream Lover looks great too. Andrew Hallsworth’s choreography charts the changing face of dance in America, from the Fosse-like, rigid movement of the 1960s to the disco inspired movements of the 1970s. The show’s design – dazzling costumes by Tim Chappel (Academy Award winner for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) set against Brian Thomson’s minimalistic yet sparkling set, and overlaid with Paul Jackson’s dynamic lighting design – enhances the epochal shifts in the story and assists the audience by sign-posting changes in setting and time.
Dream Lover knows what it’s about: Darin’s well-known hits, with his triumphs and tribulations interwoven with songs for added emotional effect. This is a jukebox musical with heart, and its energy and enthusiasm is contagious.