Photos – Alan Roy
Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien. OBE, if it's all the same to you. But you probably know her as Dusty. Not so very many pop music careers span around forty years or more, but Springfield's did. Like most, hers was an eventful life. Rags to riches. Ups and downs. Dusty, the musical, was quite an event too, groundbreaking insofar as being the first all-Australian musical to have as its subject a non-Australian star. As such and given the extraordinary suite of songs it boasts, it's always ripe for revival, as Chatswood Musical Society has realised, in staging one, at the local Epicentre Theatre.
It's redundant to observe the lead roles (in fact, there are two; the girl formerly known as Mary, or young Dusty, and not-quite-so-young Dusty) are demanding, so to discover two talents as luminous as Gabriella Glenn and Linda Hale is an almost uncanny stroke of luck for director, Fiona Kelly.
Miriam Ramsay is strong, too, as Reno, Dusty's lover and singer in her own right. Ray Cullen creates a comically effete Rodney, Dusty's all-important wig wrangler and lifelong confidante, even if his pitch doesn't always hit the mark precisely. Bernadette Baran and Derek Ebbs approached their parental roles with comic aplomb, accurate accents and plenty of energy. They're eminently likeable.
David Lang is musical director. While the rhythm section (apart from one misplaced beat on the snare, as I recall) sounds tight, the brass sometimes wavered, 'though they seemed to hit the right notes when it really counted.
Dusty is subtitled 'The Original Pop Diva'. It wouldn't have been uncommon, I don't s'pose, anymore than now, for a plain girl, growing up in the fifties, to privately dream of celebrity, in the confines of her own room. The difference being that, in Mary O'Brien, stardom found a fair dinkum recruit. Her success certainly didn't stem, as the story goes, from any particular encouragement offered by her parents, who remained steadfastly skeptical of her dreams, aspirations and pretensions. Fortunately, she seems to have been made of sterner stuff: this lack seemed to propel her forward, like a catapult, rather than hold her back. And, of course, she had phenomenal talent, which enabled more hit records than you can poke a stick at, a top-rating television show and an adoring army of fans. But, like Elvis, Michael Jackson, or Whitney Houston, to name but a few prodigies fallen by the wayside, personal happiness wasn't commensurate with popular success. And, like them, she became an addict; alcohol being her drug of choice. Dusty, it seems, was never able to reconcile or integrate Mary with her later persona.
As dramatic as her life was, however, the real moments worth waiting for in this show are when Dusty sings. Dusty really put the soul into pop, in a way no white woman before or, arguably, since, has ever really done. Happily, both Glenn and Hale are able to emulate at least something of the seductively husky timbre of Dusty's voice, so that iconic tunes like I Only Want to Be With You, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me and Son of a Preacher Man are well worth waiting for. The book, written by John-Michael Howson, David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow deftly contextualises them, which serves not only to elaborate and dramatise the story of Dusty's life, but which further enriches what are already unforgettable songs.
At its best, this production sports real pizzazz, high-camp comic sensibilities and genuinely affecting poignancy. At it's worst it suffers from a poor sense of timing, is loose and, at times, lacks any semblance of musicality. Fortunately, those songs and a palpable, pervasive nostalgia come to the rescue, even when the frock-ups prove more tragically impoverished Priscilla, or laughably Les Girls, than glitzy glamour-girl.
It's a long way from West Hampstead to blue-eyed soul queen, but a relatively short trip to Chatswood. With songs and singers like these, despite obvious production deficits, it still proves to be just that. A trip.
Chatswood Musical Society presents
The Original Pop Diva
Director Fiona Kelly
Venue: Zenith Theatre, Corner McIntosh and Railway Streets, Chatswood
Dates: 2 – 10 November 2012
Tickets: $35 – $25
Bookings: 02 9777 7547 | http://chatswoodmusicals.org