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Hugh Sheridan in Newley Discovered at Sydney Opera House June 24, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Music, Pop and Rock.
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Singer, songwriter and popular entertainer Anthony Newley was not a musical genius, but with no knowledge of music theory, he left behind a body of works that would put many a formally trained composer to shame.  Although I never saw him live in performance, I suspect what set him apart was his ability to connect with the audience.

Newley Discovered,a one-man chronological account of Newley’s life told through a compilation of his most popular works, debuted in the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2009.  It’s intimate, but not overly cosy, and the Sydney Opera House Playhouse was the perfect setting for it.  As soon as he stepped onto the stage, Hugh Sheridan engaged the audience directly and established strong rapport with the trio supporting him.

For a little over an hour, Australian actor Sheridan, known for his role as Ben Rafter in the TV series Packed to the Rafters, slipped comfortably into the role of Newley, eliciting smiles from the audience with clever one-liners.  Young for the role at only 24, he showed maturity and wisdom far beyond his age, switching from flippancy to melancholy with ease, telling the story of a life marked by tortuous excesses and personal tragedies typical of the early baby boomer generation of entertainers.

The show charts Newley’s rise from humble beginnings in East London to acceptance by demanding audiences in Hollywood and Las Vegas.  In his birth certificate, his mother’s name was “Grace”, and his father’s name was…”blank”.  Growing up with an accent that would appear to count against his chances of a theatrical career, he entered the acting profession through the backdoor, as an office boy in the Italia Conti Stage School, in which he could not afford to study.  His breakthrough came when David Lean cast him as the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist in 1948.

Surfing the wave of rock and roll in the 50s, he went almost to the top of the UK charts with I’ve Waited So Long.  Together with Leslie Bircusse, he penned and starred in the musical Stop the World – I Want to Get Off.  Bircusse was to be his partner in many other productions, including The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Although often introspective and contemplative, especially when dealing with the tragedy of his first born child who died of a congenital condition, Newley Discovered examines the tumultuous events of the singer’s life without pathos.  In fact, the many playful and clever one-liners that intersperse the songs highlight his ability to turn whatever life has to offer to something good.  Sensing that he is losing his battle with cancer, he says, “I didn’t want to die, but nobody else could do it for me.”

That Sheridan sings well is a delightful surprise.  He follows the footsteps of Some Mothers Do ‘ave ‘em star Michael Crawford in forging a musical career, releasing his first album Speak Love towards the end of 2009.  With his mildly husky voice, he sauntered through most of Newley’s important hits during the show, from What Kind of Fool Am I at the opening, to the theme tune for the movie Goldfinger, the popular hit Candy Man, and On A Wonderful Day Like Today.  Yet his acting instincts were the ultimate triumph of the evening, when he mimicked the mannerisms of Sammy Davis Jr in Candy Man.

Like many popular entertainers who find it hard to resist the calling of their libido, Newley was married three times, and had many other companions beyond these relationships.  Diana Carroll of the Independent Weekly says that Newley “might be best remembered as Mr Joan Collins”.  Although he was quite smitten with Collins, he was less keen than she was on marriage.  Despite his reluctance on commitment, romanticism got the better of him.  Collins gave him an ultimatum in Central Park for a reply within a week, but Newley “didn’t need a week”, and gave her the answer the next day.

Newley Discovered is a little gem worth exploring – enjoyable light entertainment on a well-earned evening out.