A Potential New Star For an Ever-Rarer Art
''COME to the cabaret,'' the famous lyric goes. But when you're in New Jersey, it makes sense to ask, ''Where is it?''
In West Orange, the answer is Le Dome, a classy 80-seat oasis of unlikely intimacy high up one of the winding staircases in the vast restaurant complex known as the Manor. On Thursday, David Campbell makes his first appearance there.
Mr. Campbell, 25, who came to New York from his native Australia just two years ago, has become a sought-after performer on the rarefied, ever-diminishing cabaret circuit, which is to become even more haunted by ghosts of the past at the end of the year. Rainbow and Stars, the showplace at Rockefeller Center, is closing two months after Mr. Campbell's return engagement, which runs from Oct. 13 to 31.
He is adaptable, having recently performed at half time in a rugby stadium in Sydney, Australia, in front of 60,000 people and in a Los Angeles club that seats 120. Half that number filled the cabaret room at Odette's, a restaurant in New Hope, Pa., where he performed on Sept. 5.
In a still-evolving act, Mr. Campbell combines breezy patter and storytelling with a range of songs encompassing Randy Newman, Tom Waits and Peter Allen. He does a satirical number, a sort of soap opera plot digest about youth and beauty (he has both) ''as seen on TV'' and eases into a heartfelt rendition of ''Bridge Over Troubled Water.'' Christopher Denny's elegant arrangements blend Hoagy Carmichael with Stephen Sondheim.
Mr. Campbell, who played Marius (''he's the one who lives and gets the girl'') in ''Les Miserables'' in Sydney and in Melbourne, has a particular flair for theater music. And he won't let his audience forget that he was part of a command performance for Queen Elizabeth II in June: ''Hey, Mr. Producer,'' a tribute to Cameron Mackintosh shown in the United States on public television. In the performance, Mr. Campbell soared in a duet from ''Miss Saigon'' with Lea Salonga, as well as two songs from ''Martin Guerre.''
And when he casually announces ''a song my dad gave me'' (''It Will Always Be You''), the audience is unprepared for the emotional power of his understated story about a father-and-son reunion that is fast becoming an artistic collaboration. In an interview after his performance in New Hope, Mr. Campbell said he didn't know his father was Jimmy Barnes, the lead singer in the Australian rock group Gold Chisel, until the phone rang late one night ''when I was 11 or 12 and he said, 'Come over,' to me and my grandmother,'' he recalled. ''I knew his fame -- as an Australian legend -- but I didn't know who he was. When we came home, my grandmother told me the facts.''
Mr. Campbell's parents were 17 when he was born. ''They were too young,'' he said. ''It was a one-night stand. They didn't marry. My grandmother adopted me.''
Mr. Campbell grew up believing that his mother, who lives in Adelaide, was his sister. Now, he is writing songs and making appearances with his father, who represents a contemporary pop style for young people that Mr. Campbell discovered after his musical tastes had been formed by a collection of his mother's Johnny Mathis records and show tunes.
His repertory includes ''Broadway Baby'' from the Sondheim musical ''Follies'' -- ''usually sung by a woman,'' he writes in the liner notes for his CD ''Yesterday Is Now.'' ''It's great fun to turn it around and sing it from a male perspective.'' And ''On Such a Night as This,'' from an unproduced musical titled, of all things, ''A Little Night Music.''
He calls that song (music by Marshall Barer, lyrics by Hugh Martin) his good-luck charm because he sang it at a master class given by Barbara Cook in Melbourne. Michael Feinstein, who once recorded the song, was in the house. All at once, acknowledgment from two masters converged.
Ms. Cook asked him to do another song. He did ''Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody.'' Then she told him: ''I've just traveled 12,000 miles, and what can I teach you? Just keep doing what you are doing.''
Mr. Feinstein ''helped me to get on the bill at the annual cabaret convention in Manhattan,'' Mr. Campbell said. That was in 1996. Two nights at 88's, a bistro in Greenwich Village, followed; they were extended into one month, then another month. And Mr. Campbell, whose stage credits include ''Love! Valour! Compassion!'' in Australia, has been in the United States ''on and off'' for two years.
He is engaged to Natalie Mendoza, 22, whom he met when they were both in ''Les Mis.'' (She was Eponine.)
About his act and his life, he said: ''Both have changed a lot. I'm making myself write more songs. And every performance is different,'' he said. ''I have a short attention span. I get edgy. I want to keep it fresh and move on.''
He keeps questioning himself. ''Am I following my instincts too rashly?'' he asked. ''I still have a few things up my sleeve. But I'm getting there.''
by Alvin Klein - New York Times, 4 October, 1998