Theatre Review: Dream Lover – The Bobby Darin Musical (Playing at Sydney Lyric until 27th November)

Dream Lover – The Bobby Darin Musical is the perfect show for a casino – packed to the brim with classic cabaret and jazz tunes, a live big band and dazzling set and costumes. Add to the mix an engaging story and a first-rate star and you’re guaranteed to have a mainstream hit on your hands. Which appears to be the case with John Frost’s latest production, making its world premiere on the Sydney Star stage.

In Dream Lover, we’re given a glimpse of the prolific career of Bobby Darin, a singer, songwriter, cabaret star, Oscar-nominated actor, TV host, record company exec and music producer. Oh, and he was also part of one of Hollywood’s original glamour couples, marrying Gidget star, Sandra Dee, after they met on the set of Darin’s first movie.

There’s clearly a lot of ground to cover here, despite the fact Bobby only lived to age 37. The plot largely follows an accurate chronology, although the songs are performed out of order, for the obvious reason that the big hits work best as opening and closing numbers.

David Campbell and Hannah Fredericksen
David Campbell and Hannah Fredericksen

Brian Thomson’s set design is inspired by the casino club lounges of the 60s and 70s. As well as having to traverse hundreds of locations, Thomson was thrown the added scenic challenge of needing to accommodate an 18-piece big band on stage for the duration of the show. He handles this test exceptionally well, utilising the Lyric’s overhead fly system to great effect and by installing casters on all the furniture. The overall result is a slick, sparkly, multi-level performance space that befits a cabaret star of Darin’s standing.

Academy Award-winning costume designer, Tim Chappel, has done a stellar job of recreating the iconic fashions from the era. From glittering mobsters to patriotic 70’s jumpsuits, Chappel has been given free rein to showcase his gifts. With a scaled-back set, it is the costumes that do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to placing the scenes in space and time. And, as you would expect from the costume designer responsible for Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Vegas showgirl’s look faaaabulous!

Despite the limited stage area, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth pulls out all the stops to keep the musical numbers from becoming repetitive. The Fosse-esque Mack the Knife is a great opener, and it’s wonderful to see this style back on the Aussie stage. Splish Splash is tremendous fun and the touring medley that heralds the start of Act Two is suitably enthusiastic. Unfortunately for Hallsworth, many of the male cast members lack the polish and dance skills to carry off the routines, which end up looking a bit amateurish as a result. It’s a real shame, because in the right hands (and feet), the dance numbers would be a genuine highlight.

Caroline O'Connor and Kyle Banfield
Caroline O’Connor and Kyle Banfield

David Campbell was an obvious casting choice for the role of Darin, which allows him to marry his love of cabaret and jazz with his obvious stage presence and musical theatre experience. Campbell is rarely off-stage during the two and a half-hour show, belting out rock numbers like Queen of the Hop and Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, then transitioning effortlessly to ballads Come Rain or Come Shine and If I Were a Carpenter, and finally crooning deliciously through Beyond the Sea.

Campbell has the perfect amount of ego to take on a character famous for his ‘hutzpah’ and arrogant charm. Like Darin, Campbell has achieved more than most in his 40-odd years and, as a result, his portrayal is tinged with a sense of self-importance. He uses his easy confidence and glossy voice to carry the show, delivering a self-assured performance that seemed to increase in energy as the show went on.

When casting a show which relies so heavily on a captivating lead, the risk is that the lesser players’ performances fall short in comparison. Not so in Simon PhillipsDream Lover. Caroline O’Connor is immensely watchable in the dual roles of Bobby’s Italian-American mother, Polly, and Mary, Sandra Dee’s disapproving stage mother. She joins briefly with Marney McQueen (Bobby’s sister, Nina) in a duet that steals the second act, with both women demonstrating their tremendous musical theatre talents.

Playing opposite Campbell as the iconic Sandra Dee is relative newcomer, Hannah Frederickson. She has the perfect look for the role – youthful and skinny – but also the voice to match Campbell’s. At times her accent gets in the way of a beautiful vocal tone, but when she lets loose her belt is formidable. It is a poised performance that promises big things for her future musical theatre career.

Bert La Bonte (Charlie) also shows his musical theatre chops, ageing gracefully throughout the show. Martin Crewes, as manager Steve Blauner, is energetic and holds his own in his duets with Campbell. The ensemble are well-balanced vocally, but some miss the mark theatrically, giving too much ham in the face or, as mentioned earlier, failing to master the dance routines.

dream-lover-2This show will certainly appeal to the grey-haired musical theatre set, who grew up with Darin’s music blaring from the wireless. His story is not as well-known as some of his peers despite being a public figure, as evidenced by the gasps from the audience when Darin’s sister reveals her true identity. This makes the show an interesting narrative tale, as well as a musical showcase.

Fans of the jukebox musical will not be disappointed, especially if witness to Campbell’s earlier turn as Johnny O’Keefe in Shout! As Darin, Campbell definitely delivers the goods. Simon Phillips has enlisted a team that ensures all the elements of musical theatre production are delivered well, with the exception of the choreography. But that is a minor miss-step in an otherwise entertaining evening.

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Dream Lover – The Bobby Darin Musical is playing at the Sydney Lyric, Star Casino until 27th November. For tickets, click here.

The reviewer attended the performance on 5th October, 2016.

Photo credit – Brian Geach