Dusty – a unique “fusion musical” (whatever that is) about the life of Dusty Springfield - has been in the making for over a decade, whilst previews have already lasted for three months. What exactly were the producers waiting for? If the answer is a decent script, they should’ve waited a little longer.
Perhaps the show eventually took its cue from Sinatra that opened on the West End a few weeks ago. Like that show, Dusty doesn’t place trust in its cast of performers, nor the power of the songs alone. Just as Sinatra utilises a flying, singing video projection of the great crooner, Dusty does the same with video performances taken from Springfield’s 60s heyday. In fact, the show goes one better (if you can call it that) by using a 3D hologram. It’s like Dusty Springfield has come back to life! Except…not at all.
For starters, this weird ghost Dusty (like the show overall) is plagued with technical issues. She jerks awkwardly, shimmering in the stage lights and frequently faces the back of the stage as if coquettishly refusing to show us her face. That’s probably to cover up the terrible lip syncing. Speaking of which, the video projections are totally out of sync with the sound recording – either the sound was extracted from a different live version to what we end up seeing, or Dusty was terrible at miming.
Then there are the sound levels. The musicians (themselves under-rehearsed) totally overpower the singers who are, in turn, overpowered by ghost Dusty whose implementation utterly undermines the whole point of a live performance. The different sonic elements have in no way been blended to an acceptable volume. Instead, ghost Dusty blasts in during the middle of a song when we’re trying to enjoy some actual live singing as opposed to a recording we could quite happily go and listen to at home. Pipe down Dusty!
Further, Dusty fails on a narrative level as well as a technical one. Now admittedly the life of Dusty Springfield isn’t the most dramatic of tales, at least not until her career took a downturn after the release of Son Of A Preacher Man in 1969, she turned to drink and drugs, and eventually, after a brief comeback in the late 80s and 90s, died of breast cancer in 1999. Except Dusty doesn’t even begin to touch on this part of her life, instead beginning with her early years singing with her brothers and ending with that famous single from 1969. Very little happens within this time besides the petulant, perfectionist and childish Dusty pushing all her loved ones away in her rise to fame. The central conceit is that it’s all narrated by her childhood friend Nancy in flashback, but with her own blonde ‘do’ the show becomes just as much about her and takes the focus away from the show’s namesake.
Biographies of her life claim she had something of a split personality – the sweet Mary O’Brien from Ealing with a troubled personal life and Dusty Springfield the star. Except the only bit of drama in Dusty is the revelation that she had a homosexual affair, causing gasps of “I didn’t know she was a lesbian!” from the audience. The problem is, the writers don’t have the confidence to make this lesbian drama the focus of the narrative; instead it feels like a shoehorned in plotline purely for shock value. Equally Dusty is a tale of lost friendships, about the price of fame, about the conflict between public and private personas. It’s also none of these things.
At the very least there are some spirited vocal performances, even if the cast lazily phone in some cringe-worthy dialogue. Alison Arnopp as Dusty and Francesca Jackson as Nancy, in particular, deliver powerful versions of Springfield’s output (when they can be heard), even though some weirdly modern and sexual choreography from the ensemble dancers threatens to steal their thunder. It’s Witney White as Martha Reeves who eventually shows some true star power – just as in real life, it takes a black soul singer to show these white girls how it’s done. Perhaps the cast are incapable of actually performing underneath the hilariously gargantuan wigs they’ve been dressed in?
Dusty is trying to be a reverent homage to the late pop-soul singer. Instead, it’s just offensively bland. More than anything, that’s just sad.
Watch: Dusty runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 21st November.
Photo: Elliott Franks