The taming of the wild ones

WELLLLL! You can shout it ... a little bit louder now ... yell it, in fact. And proudly.

We've got a superb new hit show - original, spectacular and tuneful.

The world premiere of Shout! on Wednesday launched a genuine, dinky-di, all-Australian musical as good or better than anything the West End or Broadway can serve up.

The new self-confidence Australia found in staging the Olympics has brimmed over on to the stage. So it's not surprising to discover that several of the Shout! cast were performers behind the scenes at the opening and closing ceremonies.

Director Richard Wherrett has gone from his global triumph in staging the climactic cauldron ceremony at the opening of the Games to this seamless and edgy production for the theatre.

Set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell came from designing the Olympic cauldron itself to create an original piece of Australiana for Shout!

Waves of corrugated iron painted deep blue conjure up moodily the harsh stadium backdrop for hard-driving music that hardly stops.

Shout! is the story of Australian rock 'n' roll legend Johnny O'Keefe, who showed the same sort of Olympian self-confidence when he pitted himself against the big-name talent being imported into Australia. He flashed like a rocket out of the '50s, sizzled high in the swinging '60s, then crashed back to earth to die in the '70s, a spent force, aged only 43.

David Campbell stars in the demanding, sweat-drenched lead role as the cocky kid who makes it big before burning out.

Bursting with primal energy as the Wild One, he dominated the stage and had the opening-night audience - largely composed of baby boomers - on their feet screaming for more as they were transformed blissfully back to the days of being shrill teenagers in the bleachers of Festival Hall.

Shout! tells it all, including the rocker's battle with booze, drugs and a succession of nervous breakdowns.

On the way up, in the first half, is the well-played, adoring, over-protective mother (Trisha Noble), his stolid furniture-store proprietor
father (Doug Scoope), who hopes the boy will eventually settle down and take over the business - and the loving, innocent German girlfriend who becomes his wife (Tamsin Carroll).

On the way up - and down - is the eccentric and flamboyant American entrepreneur Lee Gordon (he sleeps in a coffin lined with zebra skin), played with campy deftness by Aaron Blabey.

Gordon is both the Wild One's Svengali and his nemesis, the person who takes a chance with Australian rock 'n' roll but who helps destroy its figurehead with drugs.

The way down is sad.

Particularly effective are the scenes depicting JO'K's breakdown at London's Dorchester Hotel and, standing alone, the forlorn has-been singing to a tape recorder outside a Sideshow Alley tent.

But the sadness is eased by the show's driving music and jivy dancing by a cast which copes with 300 vivid costume changes.

In the music department, Kurt Sneddon not only sounds like Pee Wee Wilson of the Delltones, he's an uncanny look-alike as well.

Shout! ends on a shout of triumph - for Johnny O'Keefe, a performer who overcame our cultural cringe and blazed the trail for other Australian artists to come.

Their names scroll down in blue neon lights, from Peter Allen to Yothu Yindi - Australians who, like this show, have proved there is none better in the world.

Melbourne Herald Sun - Jan 6, 2001 Reviewer: John Hamilton