It’s rare to have the opportunity to witness the premiere of a new Australian musical; rarer still is the opportunity to attend a premiere of such new work in one of the country’s largest auditoriums.

Sydney is currently hosting the world premiere of Dream Lover, a musical retelling of the life of American singer, songwriter and actor, Bobby Darin, who rose to fame in 1958 with his hit single ‘Splish, Splash’. Darin went onto make an indelible mark on both the music and wider entertainment industry in a 15-year-career brought to a halt by his death at the young age of 37.

Cousins Frank Howson and John Michael Howson have authored the piece, and the score is the music that defined Darin’s career. Darin’s son, Dodd, has also had involvement with the script. Dodd himself penned a biography about his parents in 1994, entitled Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee’ (read Theatre People’s interview with Dodd Darin here).

A well-established fact is that a jukebox musical falls flat quickly when unsupported by a solid and genuinely engaging narrative (We will rock you, despite encompassing the cream of the crop from Queen’s stellar back catalogue, is widely derided for its paper-thin storyline). Jersey Boys leads the pack not just because of its stonking performances of infectious Four Seasons tracks, but because the story of these men was punctuated by mob connections and various run-ins with the law, scandalous affairs, and tensions between bandmates searing to the point of implosion.

Fortunately, for audiences, Darin’s life, while remarkably short, is similarly a tale readymade for the stage and screen. As a child, growing up in a poor neighbourhood in New York’s South Bronx, he contracted rheumatic fever a number of times over several years, leaving him with permanent heart damage. A doctor told his mother – in a conversation he himself overheard – that he didn’t expect Darin would live past the age of 16. But Darin was determined to defy doctors and set out to achieve all that he wanted to accomplish within the time he had. It was a confident, risk-taking attitude that would bode well for succeeding in entertainment.

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David Campbell in Dream Lover (Photo by Brian Geach)

Dream Lover follows Darin’s story from his childhood days right through to his death in LA. We see his initial rise to fame as a rock and roll star, before his Grammy Award-winning record of the year ‘Mack the knife’ signalled the start of a more eclectic career in music in which he crossed genres from swing, to country and western, to blues and even gospel. We learn of his ill-fated romance with pop singer, Connie Francis (Phoebe Paneretos), which ended upon her father’s intervention, and his introduction to future wife Sandra Dee on the set of his first film, Come September. It all makes for a first act that moves at a consistently fast pace, traversing many episodes of Darin’s life and underscored by many of his most recognised up-tempo cuts.

The pace slows with the serious change in tone in the second half, bought about as the piece begins to depict some of the darker chapters of Darin’s later life. There’s an enormous revelation that emerges out of the blue early in the act, and while to say much more would be to give away too much, it’s a moment that leads to a genuinely poignant duet by two of his family members on ‘More, (the theme from the 1962 film Mondo Cane – a track covered by Darin).

There’s then a look at Darin’s consequent descent into a reclusive life – a time during which he was said to have lived in a trailer and developed a fondness for folk music, which would become the catalyst for his next musical chapter and introduce him to a younger audience. Also briefly canvassed is his advocacy of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid 1960s, and his active involvement in the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. Much is packed in to the show’s 2.5 hours, and it ultimately paints a picture of a man not only ambitious and talented, but authentically socially conscious.

While baring little physical resemblance to Darin, David Campbell proves he’s the perfect choice for the title role. Vocally, he moves across genres with the same ease as Darin and makes it look every bit as effortless. While wonderful to listen to in crooning earlier Darin favourites, Campbell shines brightest when given the chance to take down the tempo on later numbers, the impact of which he’s able to heighten with emotionally charged vocal performances that require a strong pop sensibility, a testament to Campbell’s impressive vocal versatility. Acting the role, Campbell is convincing and delivers a character who’s both engaging and sympathetic. There is room for Campbell to inject more anger into his performance at points in the script that call for a strong response (notably, during an exchange between Darin and Dee at the end of Act I), but that’s a relatively minor quibble.

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Hannah Fredericksen and David Campbell in Dream Lover (Photo by Brian Geach)

As Sandra Dee, Hannah Fredericksen is well paired with Campbell, skilfully portraying a woman whose life, despite her successes, was profoundly sad. Again, she’s sympathetic, and she and Campbell have developed a palpable chemistry, making it easier to see Fredericksen as a woman – rather than the 16-year-old ingénue – who would never marry again after the breakdown of their relationship. Her tone is sweet but distinct and, like Campbell, Fredericksen demonstrates a sound ability to emote impressively through song.

In fact, there’s so much that could be said about all principal performances here. Bert LaBonte is excellent as Darin’s uncle, Charlie, the only father figure the entertainer knew. LaBonte brings enormous integrity to the role, and it’s therefore easy to believe, late in the show, why Charlie’s efforts to convince Darin to return from his reclusive life would have any impact. Martin Crewes, as Darin’s manager and producer, Steve Blauner, is highly entertaining; and as Darin’s sister, Nina, Marney McQueen is endearing.

And then there’s Caroline O’Connor who, from her arrival on stage, reminds us how lucky we are to see her performing on our stages. She plays Polly Cassotto, Darin’s kind, attentive and unwaveringly supportive mother, but also takes on the role of Mary Douvan, Sandra Dee’s mother and the ultimate stage parent. O’Connor carves out such distinctly different characters for the women and neither portrayal is any less important in conveying their significance in their offsprings’ lives. As much as ever before, it’s apparent here that O’Connor is a true virtuoso of the musical theatre stage. It’s no surprise that she’s heading back to Broadway following the completion of Dream Lover’s run (she will originate the role of Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch in the world premiere of Anastasia next April).

Director Simon Phillips has worked well to ensure the dynamism in the show and that there’s no lingering upon any moment for a second more than should be the case. In fact, it’s arguable too much has been packed into the piece, though one can appreciate efforts made to capture many facets of Darin’s incredible life. Additionally, there’s perhaps opportunity to craft the duet on the title track at the end of the first act into a more dramatic and impressionable moment than it currently is.

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David Campbell at the cast of Dream Lover (Photo by Brian Geach)

Phillips also succeeds in his clean staging of larger performance numbers. Brian Thomson’s expansive multi-level bandstand, characterised by sweeping arches, is striking in its visual impact, and Phillips has made good use of it.

Andrew Hallsworth deserves recognition for his outstanding choreography. His choices for opener ‘Mack the knife’ have resulted in a big production number that is slick and suave, and choreography right throughout the piece ensures deference to the period. Musically, Daniel Edmonds has his 18-piece big band sounding the part, though microphone levels need to be adjusted at times to prevent performers (particularly ensemble members) being drowned out by the wall of sound.

While it may not tell an Australian story, Dream Lover is an undeniably home grown work of which we, as local theatregoers, should be proud. Darin’s remarkable life story has been crafted into a highly dynamic, entertaining and ultimately moving musical theatre piece. It deserves to succeed. It’s a reflection on the abundant talent we continue to amass and what we’re capable of contributing to the global theatre community.

Dream Lover – The Bobby Darin Musical is now playing at the Sydney Lyric Theatre. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here

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