The Production Company’s DUSTY at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, is a disappointingly narrow tribute to one of the most complex and influential female musical artists that Britain has ever produced.
The decaying grey of a derelict television sound stage. A young girl, Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien (Baylie Carson), dances in daydreams of Doris Day, despite the stubborn discouragement of her conservative Catholic parents.
Suddenly the vision of dreary British domesticity explodes with punches of psychedelic colour as Mary O’Brien sets about remodelling herself into the dazzling blonde bouffant vision that the world would come to know as Dusty Springfield (Amy Lehpamer), and we embark on a journey through one woman’s incredible artistic legacy.
Sadly, the show’s writing, by John-Michael Howson, David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow, is where it all falls down. From the opening scenes, which resound with clichéd catch-cries of “They’ll see! One day I’ll be a star!” to the reduction of one of the openly gay central characters to little more than a clumsy assemblage of relentless and ham-fisted quips about his sexuality, the writing by feels shamefully lazy.
The real kicker is the way in which Dusty’s queerness is treated. In interviews, the real life Dusty had a boldly blasé attitude toward the subject her sexuality, and over the course of her life had a long string of love affairs which, influenced by her various struggles with addiction and other mental health issues, became progressively more volatile and ultimately violent. In DUSTY: The Musical, this rich and complicated personal life is reduced to one life-long storybook love affair. I was dying for the script to delve even just a little deeper, to provide a smidgen more context for the cultural evolution of queer awareness and visibility from the ‘60s to the ‘90s and the role that this played in Dusty’s public profile. The most Howson, Mitchell and Morrow include are a meagre few disapproving words uttered by Dusty’s mother at a house party.
Nevertheless, the performers make the most of what the script offers and manage to imbue it with vibrancy, energy and heart.
Of particular note, Virginia Gay is dynamic as the vivacious Peg, but it is Carson and Lehpamer who are the heroes of the show. Carson lends the young and ambitious Mary O’Brien a defiant fierceness that never lets you doubt her ability to take on the world, and Lehpamer is mesmerising as the obsessive artist who won so many hearts. Their respective voices are both captivating and serve tremendous justice to the much beloved score; Independently, they soar, and when combined, the defined differences between them create a harmony that is just delicious.
This is far from ground-breaking theatre, but with a gorgeous overall design and some knock-out performances, this is a fun, poppy, crowd-pleasing tribute show.