When Dream Lover – The Bobby Darin Musical made its world premiere on opening night at the Sydney Lyric, it was met with thunderous applause. Designed to make you tap your toes and hum along, this jukebox musical glitters with the best of them.
From the first number we’re invited into the life of acclaimed American singer, songwriter and Oscar-nominated actor Bobby Darin (David Campbell), whose life was more dramatic than you might know. As a young boy, he was diagnosed with a serious rheumatic fever, which weakened his heart. It was expected that he would die, but he fought all the odds and became a worldwide sensation, creating great hits such as ‘Dream Lover’ and ‘Splish Splash’ (many of which appear in the show).
Darin was also a multi-instrumentalist, television host, record company executive and music producer. He married young Hollywood star Sandra Dee (it was a tumultuous relationship; they divorced in 1967), and there was a huge family secret that drove Darin into seclusion for a few years after it was revealed. All of this drama lends itself well to a musical and this is a high-energy show.
The book, written by Frank Howson and John Michael Howson, as well as Simon Philips and Carolyn Burns, is well-structured, albeit over-sentimental. We move quickly and easily through Darin’s childhood (though the second act slows down the action and feels a little too long). Our central relationships – Darin and his family, Darin and Dee – are established smoothly, and as Darin grows up we fall in love with him.
Andrew Hallsworth’s slick choreography is wonderfully suited to each of the era-jumping scenes; it helps keep the drama onstage alive. The big band (led by Daniel Edmonds and featured onstage) creates a powerfully rich sound that dazzles and truly leads the show in the right direction.
And you can’t underestimate the power of Brian Thomson’s sparkling set and Tim Chappel’s striking costumes to charm us into overlooking the show’s flaws, like its lack of a culturally diverse ensemble or inconsistent racial politics (for a script that delves into Darin’s support of the US Civil Rights Movement, it’s surprising and insolent that the show then goes on to have an all-white ensemble wearing Afro wigs performing the otherwise touching ‘Simple Songs of Freedom’).
David Campbell is certainly the right pick for the leading role of Bobby Darin. He is charismatic and his powerful voice is the stand out of the show; he demonstrates exceptional vocal control and draws us deep into Darin’s innermost thoughts and emotions with the shape of his musical phrasing. Relative newcomer Hannah Fredericksen shines as Sandra Dee; Campbell and Fredricksen’s voices are well-matched and their duets soar. Caroline O’Connor is a formidable presence onstage as both Bobby’s mother, Polly, and Sandra’s mother, Mary; she’s in spectacular voice and is especially charming when interacting with Young Bobby.
Supporting performers Marney McQueen, Bert LaBonte, Martin Crewes and Phoebe Panaretos are each given a moment or two to show off their chops and they all rise terrifically to the occasion. Brendan Godwin, who on opening night took on the role of the youngest Bobby, has a loveable voice and and gives a winsome performance (he shares this role with Nicholas Cradock and Kyle Banfield). He also shows a deep vulnerability and openness that surpasses his years in the second act, as he moves into the role of Darin’s son, Dodd.
It’s exciting to see new Australian works being created and produced, especially ones as pleasant and enjoyable as Dream Lover. The show smashes out some of Bobby Darin’s greatest hits and it’s packed with glitz and glamour. Add in the incredibly talented cast, and you’ve got a genuine spectacle on your hands.