According to NME, Robbie Williams wrote in an early CV, “I have only one ambition, which is to be famous.”
Since his beginnings in entertainment almost three decades ago, Williams has come a long way. Starting out as a member of boyband Take That at only 16, his later decision to go it alone has seen him become the highest-selling British solo artist in UK history, receiving a record 18 Brit Awards and being inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame.
Of course, like many of his contemporaries, Williams’ career has been defined by a series of peaks and troughs. At his lowest points, the singer has battled mental illness and substance abuse disorder. But at 44 and now a father of three, Williams has continuously demonstrated his ability to come back from the harder times.
It’s that apparently dogged determination that musical theatre performer Ross Chisari pays homage to in his rock concert-meets-cabaret experience, Let Me Entertain You – The Robbie Williams Story, which played Sydney’s Leadbelly last week as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival. In two 45-minute acts, Chisari takes his audience through Williams’ most tumultuous times as a pop superstar and goes right back to his teen years in England’s West Midlands. He then canvasses the dizzying heights to which Williams has climbed as a solo artist, as well as the times when his drug addiction took him as close to the edge as one can go (specifically, a near overdose the night before a major awards performance in Europe). There’s banter about his decades-long spat with Oasis’ Noel Gallagher (who once called Williams “the fat dancer from Take That”), his 2000 duet with Kylie Minogue, and also references to his finding love with wife, American actress Ayda Field.
Over the course of the night, Chisari works his way through several highpoints from Williams’ sizeable back catalogue. Opening the night with the 2000 smash hit ‘Rock DJ’, he memorably enters the room, boldly sliding onto the bar before making his way up to the Leadbelly stage through the crowd. It’s a strong start and the audience is with him from the get go. From there, Chisari heads back in time to the Take That years with a rendition of 1995 UK chart topper ‘Back for Good’ before giving us his take on Williams’ cover of George Michael’s ‘Freedom’, the song with which the former boyband star launched his solo career in 1996. It’s followed by a series of Williams’ earlier hits, including ‘Millennium’ (his first solo number one), ‘Supreme’, and 2002’s ‘Feel’ – songs that remain among his finest tracks to date.
Like the man himself, Chisari saves some of the biggest crowd-pleasers for last, with UK best-seller ‘Angels’ a late appearance in the evening before a stonking finale with ‘Let Me Entertain You’, the banging final single from his debut album. The final performance even sees Chisari donning the KISS-inspired costume and makeup Williams wore for the song’s music video.
To say Williams is a larger-than-life character is an understatement, but Chisari quickly shows he has the poise, the verve and the flair to lead a fitting tribute to one of Stoke-on-Trent’s most famous sons. His energy is remarkable, and he successfully mixes scripted material with moments of spontaneity. He’s probably cheekier than the man himself, but he creates a convincing sense of a headstrong man who’s travelled a challenging path and has learned some valuable life lessons as a result. Vocally, his tenor does well with Williams’ most effervescent tracks and he’s backed by a tight three-piece band and a strong backing vocalist.
Let Me Entertain You – The Robbie Williams Story is the kind of night best enjoyed with a group of friends and a few drinks. Chisari has created a thoroughly entertaining experience that reminds us that it’s not how many times you fall, rather success is measured by the number of times you get back up. Be sure to catch Chisari when he next returns to the stage.