As much as many may moan about them, the jukebox musical is a form whose appeal seems unlikely to diminish anytime soon. While clever, quirky new musicals, such as Made in Dagenham, sadly fail to find sufficient audiences and close within just a few months, shows like Thriller Live and Jersey Boys have become permanent fixtures in the West End. More recently, the Beatles tribute Let it Be, the multiple Olivier-winning Sunny Afternoon and the well-received Beautiful: The Carole King Musical have continued the trend, testifying to the fact that, when it comes to mainstream musical theatre, many audience members favour a safe, slick packaging of material that they’re already familiar with, rather than chancing their luck with new songs.
The latest addition to the bio-musical fold is Dusty, a show by Kim Weild, Duncan Sibbald and Chris Cowey, which is receiving its world premiere at Charing Cross Theatre. As its title advertises, the show’s focus is the life and career of Dusty Springfield, which is presented here through a mixture of archive footage and live performance. Billed as “a unique ‘fusion musical’”, the approach actually suggests an amalgam of Let it Be, Thriller Live and Beautiful, combining the multi-media methods of the former with the straightforward bio story-telling of the latter. Footage of TV performances appears on screen, while the company of performers and musicians, led by MD Dean Austin, do their thing around the images, with lively choreography by Lyndon Lloyd.
Springfield, who memorably covered several Carole King songs, remains one of the most beloved of performers: a ’60s icon, a pioneer of so-called “blue-eyed soul”, and one of the first British pop acts to achieve success Stateside. Dusty’s conceit is to present her story through the perspective of her childhood chum Nancy Jones, as she gives an interview to a DJ. The show traces Springfield’s beginnings as suburban girl Mary O’Brien through her collaboration with brother Tom in the folky Springfields group to her decision to go solo and subsequent massive chart success. The narrative will offer few revelations to those familiar with Springfield’s story, and the darker aspects are mentioned rather than fully dramatised. Still, Weild, Sibbald and Cowey (who also directs) do well to sketch a lucid arc here, despite some clumsy spelling-it-out moments. (“Burt Bacharach? He really was one of the most important songwriters of the time…”)
Mostly, Dusty is a zip through the hits: from “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and “Goin’ Back” to “You Don’t Have to Say Love With Me” and “Son of a Preacher Man”. But the show is arguably at its most artful when using the songs in the services of the story, notably in a duet rendition of “Losing You” that effectively transforms the track into an account of ruptured female friendship, and the Sapphic spins put on “Some of Your Lovin’” and “All I See Is You”, used here to document Dusty’s burgeoning romance with the singer Norma Tanega.
At times, the show is pure kitsch: Mary’s transformation into “Dusty”, for example, is presented in a dressing room sequence in which she quickly fixes her eye make-up, reaches for a blonde wig and announces “Goodbye, Mary!” But the show does an astute job of showing the constructed nature of Springfield’s stage persona. And there are some subtler interludes too, including a lovely unstressed moment in which Dusty, after her first public performance, looks back at the stage as if seeing a glimpse of her future ahead.
The format of the show means that Ellie Ann Lowe, as Dusty, is mostly lip-syncing, but Lowe captures Springfield’s mixture of volatility and vulnerability, insecurity and steeliness, very well. Francesca Jackson has wonderful warmth and likeability as Nancy, and Allyson Ava-Brown brings great spirit to her cameo as Martha Reeves. The production is affectionate and always entertaining, but it’s ultimately the footage of Springfield’s own distinctive, passionate performances that’s the most exhilarating element in Dusty.