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Cabaret Stars Follow Their Rainbows

At New York's famous Rainbow & Stars room, David Campbell's second show of the night is about to begin. A theatre producer - one of the many who have been to see Campbell during his run - is asking questions about the young singer. In turn I ask if he's managed to see another Australian Cabaret star, Judi Connelli, who is also appearing in New York. "That's the third time today I've been asked that," is his reply.

In an art form that is a truly American invention, Campbell and Connelli have become something of a two-person invasion. Campbell "oozes star quality"; Connelli is "a force of nature", according to the New York press. Campbell, 24, has just become the youngest performer to appear at the Rainbow & Stars, a venue that is used to hosting such greats as Rosemary Clooney. Last month Connelli, 50, sang at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall - one of music's most sacred sites. Both have had reviews of the kind Mum would write. A hysterically proud Mum.

Donald Smith is convenor of the Annual New York Cabaret Conference at which Connelli and Campbell have appeared to acclaim, and which has been their springboard to the US market. He recalls the first time Connelli appeared at the conference, in 1995. "She stopped the show cold. I mean cold. We could not get the show started [again]." It was not a happy moment for the "distinguished artist" billed to follow Connelli. As for Campbell, who made his convention debut this year, Smith sees a heady future of Broadway shows and big recording labels.

It is a long way from Sydney's tiny Tilbury Hotel, where Geoffrey Williams and Michael Freundt ran a (now defunct) lively space for cabaret and revue. Connelli and Campbell acknowledge the important of that venue. "The Tilbury solidified for me the fact that I could do this," Campbell said last week. He had seen himself mainly as an actor, but a few things happened to change his mind - particularly a masterclass at the 1996 Melbourne Festival given by Barbara Cook, who said she had nothing to teach him. Then came the Cabaret Convention, followed by a spectacularly extended series of performances at a well-regarded club called 88s (where Connelli is currently performing) and then his US tour culminating in the Rainbow & Stars engagement.

On opening night Campbell's father, rock star Jimmy Barnes, turned up to surprise him. The first he knew of it was when he bumped into Barnes in the loo.

Now Campbell can look into an audience and see - as he did last week - the faces of the grande dame of stage and club, Betty Buckley, playwright Terrence McNally, scads of fellow performers and theatre producers anxious to check out the latest buzz. He scored an interview on the Charlie Rose program on PBS, and he was followed around last Saturday by a crew from Australia's 60 Minutes.

So why return home, as he did on Tuesday this week, to join the cast of Les Miserables for last-minute rehearsals before the show opens in Sydney on November 29? (He plays the romantic lead, Marius.)

"I want to keep doing things in Australia," says Campbell, who will be with the show for six months. "I don't want to abandon Australia. It's not my intention." On a pragmatic level there is the attraction of producer Cameron Mackintosh's international reach and the fact "we've pretty much blitzed New York. It's probably good to get away for a six-month period. I wanted to do an acting piece again, and if it's in my home, all the better. I've been travelling around for about a year and a half now and I just wanted to be in one place for six months. Also, it takes the pressure off you to be part of a company. There's a certain feel of family there."

In fact, the Sydney cast of Les Mis, well into rehearsals without him, sent Campbell a four-page fax for his opening night at Rainbows & Stars, even though he hadn't met many of them. Campbell had been rehearsing by long distance, felling a bit as if he was attending School of the Air. "It's been very lonely doing it," he admits.

It hasn't hurt Campbell that he's young, very good looking and sweet and charming. Unsurprisingly, "a lot of people have been coming to suss me out", and there have been some nibbles about stage and screen roles. "I don't know if the nibbles will turn into a bite," he says. Right now he's just feeling "grateful and lucky", acknowledging that success such as his is partly the luck of the draw; the right place, right time factor. He's been to auditions and see the hunger in other, less fortunate, people's eyes.

Campbell's Australian manager Les Solomon wants to make sure his young charge isn't labelled just as a cabaret singer. That can happen in New York. The idea is to present Campbell as an actor as well, which is why he sings a sing from the Alex Harding musical Only Heaven Knows. The song has the benefit of being totally new to an American audience, and it shows off Campbell's theatre skills. Solomon knows of an experienced and well-credentialled cabaret singer who has taken a role in the new Broadway music Side Show - in the chorus, to prove that he can break the mould. There are, needles to say, no plans for Campbell to take on chorus roles.

For all the adulation thrown Campbell's way as a cabaret singer, it's not the way to immediate riches. "It takes a lot of high-flying to make money in cabaret," says Solomon - hence the desire for Broadway. "You do these gigs [Rainbows & Stars] for the prestige and the high profile," he adds.

It's Solomon's job to think that way. For Campbell, "All I'm doing is following my dream and following the path that has been set out for me [with a] big neon sign saying GO THIS WAY."

Deborah Jones

The Australian Friday November 21 1997