Catching the world premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s Dusty musical, ahead of a UK tour and West End transfer, unlike Strictly Come Dancing‘s Craig Revel Horwood’s recent, poorly received Son of a Preacher Man, a non-biopic musical featuring Dusty Springfield songs, here we are promised a more in depth, frank look at the Enfield born singer’s life and music career, with comedy and tears on both accounts. In light of how many musicals have been based around a famous singer or band such as Carole King, The Kinks, Frank Sinatra, Jersey Boys, and that Dusty is one of the most iconic performers of the twentieth century, it’s a wonder she hasn’t been a West End reincarnation before.
With direction by the renowned Maria Friedman, and 60s wigtastic set and costume design by Tom Pye, no matter how talented the production team or how glitzy the staging, ultimately the whole show hinges on one thing – whoever plays Dusty. Fortunately, while there are weaknesses in the general script, based on the authorised biography of Dusty Springfield, triple-Olivier-Award nominated Katherine Kingsley (of Piaf, Singin’ in the Rain and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels fame) excels vocally, mirroring Dusty’s soulful voice and trademark moves and gestures, whilst giving a layered portrayal of her transition onto the world stage, with comedian Rufus Hound playing her manager. From her strained relationship with mother Kay (Roberta Taylor), the crippling stage fright she experienced ahead of each live performance, her perfectionism (and divaism) as a recording artist, to her personal and professional deterioration as fame and fortune took its toll and the music which made her an international sensation, (hits such as ‘Wishin’ And Hopin’ and ‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’, ‘The Look of Love’), gradually fell out of fashion with the dawn of glam rock.
Although there’s no disputing Kingsley is convincing throughout, she does verge on impersonating one of the characters from Absolutely Fabulous when it comes to some later poolside scenes when Dusty laps up the vodka for breakfast, and should tone it down if we are to have as much empathy for the star as we are doubtless expected to have. Although Friedman is obviously keen to push the comedy, the audience yo-yos between laughter and melancholy, with serious matters being dealt with too lightly and vice versa, making the feel of the show a little maladjusted and confused when it comes to the more difficult aspects of the singer’s life. The tone and pitch needs some adjusting.
It goes far further than I expected from a musical of this kind, however, bravely showing Dusty’s lesbian relationship with Lois (Joanna Francis), bisexual bed romps in LA and her well reported drink and drug abuse. I’m just not sure that the uncomfortable turn the second half takes, including her time at a mental hospital following a breakdown and episodes of self-harming, is the family-friendly show that would have encouraged so many to buy a ticket, and has forced producers to caution audiences with an advisory 14+, something of a shame when I recall falling in love with Dusty’s music at a much earlier age on my parents introducing me to the music they grew up with.
Dusty is a ‘proud’ celebration of her talent, I’m just not sure we needed to watch footage of her funeral procession following a trite death bed scene which lacked creativity and imagination as a show ending. That said, for all its flaws, the musical has a strong core and doubtless many of the audience members are deeply loyal fans who want to hark back to their grief at Dusty’s passing. For me, the most enjoyable part of the show wasn’t the acting, or listening to the music created for the show, but having the chance to see the electrifying Kingsley bring Dusty to life with a live band, just as I might have seen the real star had I been born in another era. Fortunately, we are left with just such a finale, with a belting ‘You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me’ by Kingsley allowing us to walk away on a more positive note about the singer’s legacy rather than her showbiz decline.