Musicals that focus on the life of one person live or die on whether the person cast is right for the role. In the case of Amy Lehpamer as Dusty Springfield in Dusty the Musical, the powers that be just didn’t get it right, they achieved a bull’s eye.
Lehpamer’s performance is magical and she was simply perfect in the role, sounding uncannily like the original. This is the second time I have reviewed this young Australian performer – the first was earlier this year as Maria in The Sound of Music – and in both cases I have been struck by her extraordinary talent. She has a powerhouse voice and natural stage charisma.
Written by John-Michael Howson, David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow, the show made its first appearance at Arts Centre Melbourne in 2006, before touring Australia. And in those intervening 10 years, it has lost none of its power and pathos.
The writers use a clever dramatic device that works superbly – young WAAPA graduate Baylie Carson plays the plain young Mary O’Brien before she became Dusty Springfield, and throughout the show Carson appears as Dusty’s alter ego, and the two performers work seamlessly together with a beautiful vocal blend. This is a young performer with a big future.
All Dusty’s hit songs are there, such as I Ain’t Mama’s Little Girl No More, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, I Only Want To Be With You…the list goes on. But this show is far more than a jukebox musical.
Being true to yourself in the late 1950s and early 60s if you didn’t fit the conventional mould was tough, and Dusty’s story involves much heartbreak as she endures a rocky path in her love affair with American singer Reno (Elenoa Rokobaro).
Dusty’s story shows again how fame can be a very lonely road, and if it’s not backed up with a strong personal relationship, it can lead to a downward personal spiral. From being a non-drinker, Dusty soon learns to drown her sorrows in booze and various substances, and it’s heartbreaking to see the personal decline of this brilliant singer.
While many of the hit songs are in the first act, it was the second act that hooked me and and had me feeling that lump in the throat as the on stage drama was handled to perfection. The Playhouse is the right theatre to give us the intimacy and power of the drama, as well as the flashiness of the terrific choreography and costumes.
Watching Dusty disintegrate in her personal life was heart-stopping, but seeing her gradually take charge of her problems and do something about them and resume her career was heartwarming. When you’re dealing with a real story, you can’t change what happens, so we do have to travel the road with Dusty that leads to her untimely death. But before that happens, she has conquered the world again, both personally and professionally.
As her hairdresser and confident Rodney, Todd McKenney is at first unrecognisable in the first act under his Beatle wig. McKenney gives his usual fine performance, balancing humour and pathos as he does so well. The third “Dusketeer” is dresser and assistant Peg, another comic performance played with real sincerity by Virginia Gay. McKenney and Gay give so much and are an integral part of the show’s success.
Anne Wood and Tyler Coppin show their versatility as they negotiate three roles each, making an impact every time they are on the stage. Wood is Dusty’s repressed mother Kay, who has a lovely ballad My Colouring Book, in the second act when she reconciles with Dusty after a rocky relationship. She also has a fine cutting comic role as acerbic columnist Jean Rook, and a small but sympathetic role as Dusty’s doctor. Coppin enjoys his role as Dusty’s Dad Gerard, a wonderfully outrageous turn as a drag queen, and he makes a convincing frustrated record producer, Jerry Wexler.
Elenoa Rokobaro gives a finely judged performance as Reno, and after an initial microphone glitch, sings up a storm. The chemistry between her and Lehpamer is very satisfying.
Costumes by Isaac Lummis are spectacular, and choreography by Michael Ralph is a pleasure to watch. And yet again, the Production Company orchestra under Michael Tyack’s direction delivers in spades.
Quite simply, this is another great night at the theatre from The Production Company.
The Melbourne season of Dusty at the Playhouse has been extended to Sunday December 4.