Ted Chapin kicks off his tenure as head of 92Y’s iconic Lyrics & Lyricists with The Bobby Darin Story inspired by Dream Lover, an Australian jukebox musical telling the story of vocalist/musician/ songwriter/ publisher Bobby Darin: Walden Robert Cassotto 1936-1973. (The artist is said to have chosen his professional name passing a MANDARIN RESTAURANT sign with its first three neon letters gone dark.) Inclusion in a series celebrating writers is explained by utilizing some of Darin’s own songs, a few highly recognizable, several obscure. (He wrote over 160.)
To say featured performer Jonathan Groff’s fan base has assembled is putting it mildly. The audience cheers when he comes on, intermittently throughout, and volubly during bows. When Chapin approached Groff about playing Darin, the latter’s familiarity was limited to Kevin Spacey’s terrible biopic. YouTube Research got him hooked on the vocalist’s versatility. Respect is as palpable as enthusiasm. (Author Will Friedwald calls Darin “a titanic fireball of an ultra-dynamic swinging and rocking entertainer.”)
George Salazar, Stephanie Styles, Jonathan Groff, Elena Shaddow, David Pittu
We open with an appealing low key version of “Beyond the Sea.” (Charles Trenet/ Albert Lasry Jack Lawrence.) Groff’s renditions, even when pop is ebullient or swing swells, soften edges making words more lyrical. For my money, a highpoint this evening comes towards the end when he sings Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter,” recorded during Darin’s otherwise unsuccessful folk phase. It’s soft as a fleece blanket and full of yearning. This is not to say Groff doesn’t otherwise sell the artist’s hip gestures, slick moves, finger snaps, and attitude.
Bobby Darin was born so poor, his crib was a salvaged cardboard box. Rheumatic fever weakened his system and would eventually be the source of early death. Doctors said he wouldn’t live past 15. He was short and balding. Ambition (and his mother’s unconditional support) fueled every decision. Young Darin worked in bands.
Elena Shaddow and Jonathan Groff; Stephanie Styles and Jonathan Groff
Depiction of nervously bombing in his first television (1956) appearance is deftly sympathetic in Groff’s hands. A mere two years later Darin’s own “Splish Splash” extemporized at the offhand suggestion of radio personality Murray-the-K’s mother, Jean (co-writer), shot to number one. Vivacious performance ostensibly on American Bandstand follows.
Not only does Groff/Darin sing – often with vocal back-up, but so do his mother (Elena Shaddow – pretty voice, little personality), Elvis Presley (George Salazar with gyrating gusto), George Burns, in his first show without Gracie Allen (David Pittu, whose rather good impersonation is somewhat handicapped by a mustache), and Darin’s wife, Sandra Dee (Stephanie Styles – thin, chirpy vocals). While varied attribution successfully allows for different voices performing a single oeuvre, I find breaking up narrative among the five-person cast (on cards and in scripts) disjointing/ distracting.
Jonathan Groff and David Pittu
At first emulating Elvis (neatly portrayed by Groff), Darin found his singular groove by arranging standards as rock. We hear “(Up A) Lazy River” (Hoagy Carmichael/ Sydney Arodin) by Groff, Pittu, Salazar and “That’s All” (Bob Haymes/Alan E. Brandt) by Shaddow. A charming duet of “I Ain’t Got Nobody” (Robert Graham/David Payton /Spencer Williams) performed with George Burns (Groff and Pitu) includes jaunty, ersatz soft shoe. “Mack the Knife” is tellingly performed first in good German (lyrics-Bertolt Brecht) by Pitu, then in English by Groff (Marc Blitzstein/Kurt Weill). All in all the men fare better than the women tonight.
It’s conjectured that because of early prognosis, Darin was fascinated by death, including the subject in many songs. The number chosen to exemplify this theory is Sheldon Harnick/Jerry Bock’s “Artificial Flowers.” Styles smiles during her up-tempo, counter-intuitive, pop version, but then Darin did as well.
His mother’s dream was realized in 1960 when Darin finally booked The Copacabana night club. Groff seamlessly slips into many of Darin’s signature moves – the short step and slide, the quick turn, shoulder jerk back, left hand finger snaps, and integrates familiar, punctuating sounds – Huh! Uh Huh! Hup! Yeah! Whoa!
“Dream Lover,” “Multiplication,” and “Things” were written by Darin, as was “18 Yellow Roses,” which tells the true story of his courting Sandra Dee (the first Gidget) through her chaperone mother by sending flowers daily. Dee was resistant at first and on paper the two seemed like opposites. Once he got his foot in the door, however, Darin swept her off her young feet. They married and became America’s Sweethearts. “Irresistible You” (Al Kasha/ Luther Dixon) is performed by Groff and Styles, who resembles the perky Dee.
Film work was inconsistent. Darin went back to night clubs where he felt at home. Dee hated having to sit ringside for two shows a night. Far flung appearances strained. Even with a new son, she began to drink and gamble. In an effort to keep things together, Darin started a music publishing company. “Danke Schoen” (Kurt Schwabach/Milt Gabler/Bert Kaempfert, which he handed off to Wayne Newton, made the newer performer a star. Salazar sings this with round-toned zest. Things came to a head. The couple divorced.
David Pittu, Elena Shaddow, Jonathan Groff, Stephanie Styles, George Salazar
Two pivotal things happened on the heels of this breach: Darin’s friend Bobby Kennedy was assassinated and the artist learned the woman he thought was his mother was in fact his grandmother, that his sister was his mom. The entertainer took off his hairpiece, moved to a trailer on the coast, and musically went through a folk phase. When the Hardin song hit, he realized he was still “a nightclub animal” and returned. Groff’s “Once in A Lifetime” (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley) is well placed. Time was running out.“In a sense his whole career was posthumous.”
Despite needing an oxygen tank offstage, Darin began a weekly television show and made plans for residency at The MGM Grand. He ignominiously died at 37 when forgetting to take antibiotics necessary to his heart condition before a dentist appointment.
Off comes the make up/Off comes the clown’s disguise/ The curtain’s fallin’ /The music softly dies./But I hope your smilin’/As you’re filin’ out the door/As they say in this biz/That’s all there is, there isn’t anymore. “The Curtain Falls”
Chapin’s script is entertaining and highly informative.
Director Alex Timbers keeps the piece lively and duets fetching.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Jonathan Groff
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
The Bobby Darin Story
Based on the musical Dream Lover
Featuring Jonathan Groff
Vocalists: David Puttu, George Salazar, Elena Shaddow, Stephanie Styles
Director- Alex Timbers
Music Directors- Andy Einhorn & Andrew Resnick
Musical Staging-Chase Brock
92Y – Lexington Avenue 92/93
NEXT LYRICS & LYRICISTS: Lenny’s Lyricists February 24-26
- 'The Bobby Darin Story'
- 92Y Lyrics & Lyricists
- Alix Cohen
- Andrew Resnick
- Andy Einhorn
- Bobby Darin
- Bobby Kennedy
- Chase Brock
- David Puttu
- Elena Shaddow
- Elvis Presley
- George Burns
- George Salazar
- Jonathan Groff
- Kevin Spacey
- rheumatic fever
- Sandra Dee
- Stephanie Styles
- Ted Chapin
- The Bobby Darin Show
- The Copacabana
- the musical 'Dream Lover'
- Walden Robert Cassotto
- Wayne Newton