Dusty The Musical
Charing Cross Theatre
7th September 2015
It’s fair to say that the Charing Cross Theatre’s new musical about Dusty Springfield has not had an easy ride so far. Having started previews in May, the show has only opened its doors to the press this week, amidst rumours of creative strife behind the scenes.
It’s as linear a biopic as you could ever see, charting Springfield’s career through its rise and fall, punctuated by her excellent back catalogue. If you’re going to stage a biopic the subject really needs to be interesting; apart from a few squabbles with friends and family, Dusty makes Springfield’s life look remarkably mundane. Compared to similar productions like Jersey Boys (mob connections) and Sunny Afternoon (family bereavement) there is strikingly little emotion or drama to be found in the storyline or the script.
There are occasional nuggets of interest but they are carelessly and frustratingly skirted over. You could probably write a whole play about Springfield being ‘deported’ from South Africa for playing to a desegregated crowd; here it is given just one scene before never being spoken of again. Dusty’s lesbianism is a theme throughout and the love of her life Norma Tanega is introduced to us in the second half. However, we never find out how Dusty copes with intimacy as they break up in the next scene. The programme talks about her struggles with drink, drugs and self-harm; you would not know it judging by anything presented on the stage. It’s symptomatic of the whole play; opportunities for depth and character development are agonisingly passed over.
This leaves a script crammed full of pedestrian clichés that could be found in any showbiz biopic (You’re just a girl from Ealing’ ‘I made you what you are today, without me you’d be nobody etc etc). The show is framed around an interview with one of Springfield’s best friends; their dialogue is particularly grating, containing exposition so blatant that it can probably be seen from space. Jukebox musicals can feel forced and laboured at the best of times and so they really need a sharp script to flourish. And yet the dialogue here felt horribly unnatural at times, with the cast really struggling to deliver it in a realistic way.
The show prides itself on being a multimedia experience and a few of the projections were genuinely impressive. However, they were massively overused and managed to suck much of the life out of the show. Good musical tunes should advance the story and the plot; archive concert footage plus live backing vocals served to do neither. Son of A Preacher Man, which should be a live crowd pleaser was as flat as a pancake due to the reliance on a low-energy TV recording.
The songs that were actually performed on stage (such as All Cried Out and a nicely harmonised final number) were much stronger and left far more of an emotional impact. Whilst Springfield is no doubt a brilliant performer, she doesn’t have a diverse discography, meaning the musical interludes often felt samey, especially when staged in an almost identical way every time.
It is difficult to fault the cast; they put in an energetic performance in spite of some flimsy material and many of them have been drafted in at very short notice. Alison Arnopp has a perfectly good singing voice but she had to compete with frequent clips of the real Dusty, which only highlighted the gulf between the two. Francesca Jackson also sings well as Nancy but is saddled with a massively underwritten character and the aforementioned poor script.
Witney White was on sparkling form as Motown legend Martha Reeves, bringing some much needed energy and zest with the one song that she was given. There was some interesting and well-performed choreography, with Amanda Digon Mata standing out amongst the solid troupe of dancers. Jason Kealer’s costumes were also suitably bright and extravagant, perfectly recreating the period and Dusty’s elaborate wardrobe.
However, even without knowing about the show’s turbulent preview period it was clear that all was not well. Musical cues came in too late or early, scene transitions were awkward and the sound mix was uneven; the final medley was totally inaudible in parts. Even the official programme was lacking in confidence; instead of a song list we were given some tunes that could potentially appear, suggesting changes were being made right up until the belated press night.
Whilst there are a few moments of quality, Dusty’s hackneyed script and awkward staging means not even the son of a preacher man could save it. The show is now on its third director and has seen nine cast members head for the exits; you can’t help thinking that they had the right idea.
Photos: Elliott Franks