A Rockin' Revelation

Musical: Shout directed by Richard Wherrett, State Theatre.

The opening night of Shout, the musical that tells Johnny O'Keefe's life story, had an audience that shouted with excitement at the end a sign that producer Kevin Jacobsen has hit the spot with a great show for Melbourne's summer.

Like its subject, Shout just bursts with energy, its songs, dancers, band, set and lighting combining in a kaleidoscopic and irresistible celebration of rock and roll. David Campbell as O'Keefe is a real star. Best of all, he not only performs like a supercharged hero, he also maintains the unpretentious charm of his original, the Catholic boy whose music defined his rebellion and earned him the title of Wild One.

We are all familiar now with the showbiz biography genre, that of Buddy Holly and Peter Allen, the ones seen 'most recently in Melbourne.

It is defined by early struggle, meteoric rise to stardom, with a self-destructive underside that brings about a tragically early death. OKeefe fits the pattern precisely, dying at 43 after a series of breakdowns.

This show rightly celebrates O'Keefe's role as one of Australia's first rock stars, but as the recent feud between promoters James Erskine and Jacobsen over song rights reveals, many of O'Keefe's biggest hits were covers.

America was the source of rock and roll, but it rapidly became an international music phenomenon. What was unique about O'Keefe, Col Joye, Johnny Devlin, Little Pattie, Lonnie Lee, Jimmy Little and Frankie Davidson was that they were Australian performers, not international artists flown in to perform to the locals.

Manager and entrepreneur Lee Gordon, played by Aaron Blabey with a comic flair that usefully tones down the hints of sleaze, is also rightly celebrated as the individual who established these early Australian performing careers.

The show's early scenes are marvellous evocations of the transformation of a wowser Australia, a relatively innocent time when girls wore all those starched petticoats and boys sported ducks-tail haircuts, when sexual energy all seemed to go into music, song and jiving.

What O'Keefe's story also reveals, as a significant subtext, is that the loss of innocence involved 'more than music, and drugs became an apparently inevitable accompaniment to performers lives lived in the fast lane. Tamson Carroll, playing Johnny's wife Maryann, admirably establishes his essential decency, as do Doug Scroope and Trisha Noble (Patsy Ann Noble of Bandstand fame) as his parents. Carroll's rendition of the Willy Nelson song Crazy is an emotional climax of the show as is Noble's version of (He) Wears My Ring.

The program, infuriatingly, omits the songs from its list of sections in each act. Song titles are hidden away at the very back of the program alongside a glossary of Australian slang terms and references. Maybe this has something to do with the controversy over song rights, but it is a serious omission.

This show does have O'Keefe's best-known songs, notably She Wears My Ring, Sing, Sing, Sing, 'Mockingbird, and Col Joye's great Bye, Bye, Baby Good-bye. We also get I'm Gonna Knock on Your Door, Save the Last Dance for Me, So Tough, Ready for You, Chapel of Love, I'm Counting on You, 'Move, Baby, 'Move as well as the title song and climax of the show, Shout. The Delltones' Get a Job is another hit. So there's no shortage of tremendous song items, most of them also great dance numbers that are given hugely energetic treatment the chorus. Choreographer Ross Coleman has revived all those old, daggy 'moves, but they sure are fun to watch.

The shift away from sheer, exuberant displays of energy in the 1950s to the 'more decorous dancing on television in the '60s accompanies a similar shift in style in O'Keefe. One of the reasons he survived so long as a rock star was his dexterous transformation from Wild One to family entertainer, from the rough and tumble of the old Sydney Stadium to the smooth camera technique of the TV studio. Director Richard Wherrett has produced a winner here. The first-night audience was full of ageing rock fans who sometimes sang along, high on nostalgia, but the music and the performances are certainly good enough to capture a new generation of admirers.

The Melbourne Age by HELEN THOMSON Monday 8 January 2001