Review by Don Bridges
Johnny OKeefe (JOK) was a legend of Australian rock and roll, the first home-grown rocker to grace an Aussie stage at a time when only the imported was seen as good enough. This was a time when our cultural cringe, which to this day survives, was at its absolute peak. If it wasnt American or British it couldnt be any good. The first time JOK appeared on an Australian stage he was booed. But he wouldnt leave, he said to the crowd, you can boo me all you like, but you paid 12 shillings and sixpence to see me and you are going to love me. Thanks to JOK we can now hold our heads high on the world stage and this musical celebrates that coming of age.
The performance I saw was the first with an audience, 4 days before opening night. There are no out of town tryouts and months of honing the show in front of an audience for these guys; they open to critics and public in 4 days. After only 6 weeks of rehearsals this show is already as tight as a fishs bum, and with only very minor cuts and tightening of the blackouts and fixing of the inevitable technical glitches it will be right there. Already David Campbell as JOK is a triumph as he throws himself through this show like a prizefighter looking for the knockout in the first round. Ably supported by a cast of 36 including a sensational onstage rock band and close harmony backing vocalists, they recreate the sounds and the dancing of the 50s, 60s, and 70s choreographed by Ross Coleman.
Almost at the beginning of the show we hear an amazing rendition of Cry the old Johnnie Ray song, and the performer turns to us with glasses spraying water over his audience, it is Campbell strutting his stuff with an amazing vocal rendition. Apparently JOK used to do this as a party trick, but I imagine he never sounded as good as Campbell. This is an amazing vocal performance where he sounds like JOK at his best, and at his worst when times got bad and the old rockers voice cracked and faded. As the manipulative, self obsessed coffin dwelling Lee Gordon, OKeefes American manager, Aaron Blabey gives a strong and confident performance and sets the scene for the sex, drugs and rock n roll excesses of OKeefe who became known to Aussies as the Wild One. A moment I loved, and which delighted the audience was when the recorded version of Rock Around the Clock played and JOK remarked I could do that, and then the onstage band takes over the song and Campbell sings the hell out of the it. We go to interval after a horrific car crash that almost took the life of OKeefe and which in my memory was a defining time in his life. After interval we are swept through the early days of television when he was on our screens every week, his face gradually healing from the scars, singing covers of the great rock and roll songs from the US and England. He was our own Elvis or Cliff Richard, but on a promotional tour to England he was committed to an asylum where for two months he told them he was Jesus Christ. Then he told them he was the King Of Rock and Roll in Australia and they doubled his dose. He eventually borrowed a doctors coat and escaped back to Australia. However his star was waning and he found himself touring the country in tent shows as his self-destructive habits made him a very sad and bitter man. It was at this time that he heard of the 47-year-old Lee Gordons death. JOK died in 1978 at the too young age of 43, but he achieved in his time a list of firsts unparalleled in this country.
The show finishes on a high note with a recreation of a concert from 1959 when he was at his height as a performer. A rollicking rock and roll show that has the crowd screaming for more. This musical is in the tradition of Buddy and Grease but for once it is about us. At the end of the show a neon backdrop floats into sight and when it lights up we see the names of some of the Australian performers whose careers were made possible by the trailblazing of OKeefe. Among them are: A/C D/C, Little River Band, Peter Allen, Olivia Newton-John, INXS, Men At Work, The Bee Gees, Savage Garden and many others, and yes they all started in Australia. I must give a final word of praise for Tamsin Carroll as OKeefes first wife and the delightful Trisha Noble and Doug Scroope as Mr and Mrs OKeefe. Noble was a contemporary of OKeefe in the days when as Patsy-Anne Noble she appeared with him on his TV shows. Her voice is like melted chocolate as she croons a lullaby, later reprised as Mockingbird, to the infant Johnny, and she manages to portray the ages from 20 to 63 effortlessly.
Verdict: Scream, yell or shout for a ticket.