Younger Than Springtime

New York -- Cabaret is not a young man's game. Mostly, it is not a man's game at all. To find the epiphanies in all the torch songs, the ballads, the show tunes, it helps to have been around the block, to know the score; besides, women do it better.

So much for received wisdom. Now hop the express elevator to Rainbow & Stars, on the 65th floor at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and discover David Campbell, 24, a newcomer from Australia who has the habitues in the palm of his hand. His act (continuing through Nov. 15) has no dead spots. Through more than a dozen numbers, new and old, from "I Got Rhythm" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" to "Yard Sale," a classic-to-be by American songwriter Tom Andersen, he tells stories, shares confidences. His voice -- a slender tenor, reedy and appealing -- goes through countless changes, turning on a dime from a rocker's growl to a serenader's honeyed falsetto. His pitch is perfect; he can pick notes out of thin air (and hold them forever).His diction is perfect, too.

His youth shows in the patter between songs, when he can seem wound up, overeager, a touch jumpy. Of average height and slight build, he sooner or later draws attention, a touch defensively, to the tall, blond, brawny Australian stereotype to which he does not conform. Never mind. Once the music picks up, everything extraneous falls away. The brushed-back brown mane tumbles over a broad, smooth forehead; the blues eyes in their deep sockets lock into focus; and the smile, impish yet vulnerable, mirrors a trusting surrender to emotion. Like his voice, Mr. Campbell's face is all-revealing, yet for all his sophistication, he is free of mannerism.

How did he get here? How did he get here so young?

Call it fate, call it a fluke. As a young actor back in Australia, Mr. Campbell had three months to kill between his last job, a play, and his next job, a musical. "Do a cabaret act," said his manager. "Warm up the cords."

"No way," said Mr. Campbell, or words to that effect, but did an act anyhow. A year and several shows later, Barbara Cook heard him at a master class in Melbourne. "I've traveled 7,000 miles, and what can I tell you?" was the legendary songstress's reaction. "Keep doing what you're doing."

Fast-forward another year to October 1996, when Mr. Campbell appeared by invitation in a showcase at New York's Cabaret Convention. An instant sellout engagement ensued at the cozy downtown boite Eighty-Eight's -- and then the buzz really got going. Philips rushed Mr. Campbell's debut CD "Yesterday Is Now" (formerly available only as a high-markup import) into American release and sent him straight back into the studio for an encore, "Taking the Wheel," released this September. Back in the U.S., tour dates have taken him from coast to coast and back again.

He is, by a wide margin, the youngest entertainer ever to play Rainbow & Stars, which in his line is the top of the mountain. Two weeks before his debut, Mr. Campbell went to the opening of an R&S regular, Rosemary Clooney, who at 69 is enjoying a heady renaissance. "Treat the place as your living room," was her advice.

"It's a lot larger than my living room," Mr. Campbell mused, holed up in a tiny West Village sublet, curled up on a couch beside the score of "Les Miserables" and a well-thumbed copy of the voluminous Hugo novel. These are his homework. Straight from R&S, Mr. Campbell jets back to Sydney for the show's 10th-anniversary revival. When first offered the part of the idealist Marius, ground into the dust by man's inhumanity, Mr. Campbell turned it down; the rehearsals conflicted with his R&S engagement. But the producer, Cameron Mackintosh, who caught Mr. Campbell in February at a concert in Sydney, refused to take no for an answer. So Mr. Campbell signed on and will join a cast already in previews. Not that this takes the pressure off his more immediate assignment. "As each day passes," Mr. Campbell said with a frown, "I'm more and more aware of that big room hanging in the sky." The big room seats about a hundred.

On opening night, a surprise guest turned up who had flown 22 hours to be there. Nicely tanned, bearing a distinct resemblance to the young Albert Finney, it was Jimmy Barnes, known down under as the man who changed the face of Australian rock `n' roll. He is also Mr. Campbell's father.

"I grew up with my mother," Mr. Campbell explains to audiences, "not with my father." And his mother's taste ran to the American musicals she would watch on TV in drab Elizabeth, outside Adelaide. Young David watched, too.

As regards the family history, it takes no Woodward and Bernstein to learn that the woman Mr. Campbell calls his "mother" is actually his grandmother, whereas the woman he knew as his mostly absent grown-up "sister" is actually his mother. The boy was 12 when he first met his father, at which time the secrets were revealed.

And then? "We never had a father-son relationship," Mr. Campbell replies. "It was more like friends." The emotional climate cooled when Mr. Campbell first showed an inclination for show business. "Now Jimmy knows I'm not riding his coattails," Mr. Campbell says. "We've gotten closer in the last year or so."

So much so that Mr. Barnes could not touch a bite of Waldy Malouf's three-star preshow dinner. "I saw David before he went on," Mr. Barnes said at a whirlwind reception between the 8:30 and the 11 p.m. shows. "He was fine. I was much more anxious than he was."

Why?

"I sing for 10,000 people," said the sixth continent's answer to Bruce Springsteen. "This is harder. All the human contact, the intimacy. . .. This is much harder."

 

Wall Street Journal - Nov 3, 1997 by Matthew Gurewitsch