Spoleto 2009 » Opera/Musical Theater

Splish-Splash deserves an audience beyond Bobby Darin fans

Affectionate tribute swings behind Joe Clarke, tight band

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There are quite a few things working against Keely Enright's new show about Bobby Darin, Splish-Splash: The Short & Spectacular Life of Bobby Darin, not the least of which is Darin's relative obscurity. Then there's geography. And then there's musical fashion.

In the current climate, in the midst of a crowded festival calendar, a Mt. Pleasant production about a hard-to-define singer, delivered via a format borrowed from a TV series (think VH1 Storytellers done live on stage) is simply a tough sell.

That's the bad news. The good news is that this show winds up working surprisingly well, and it starts up front with Joe Clarke. Clarke is a Charleston County School of the Arts jazz piano teacher, but Splish-Splash calls on him to sing as Darin, and he does so with a remarkably well-adapted voice and plenty of stylistic control.

This isn't a pure revue — Clarke and co-star Paulette Todd slog through plenty of spoken exposition — but then again, the script doesn't call on either to do much acting. Consequently, the music is the make-or-break issue for Splish-Splash, and Clarke's vocals are more than matched by the show's eight-piece band, under the direction of Frank Duvall.

Between Clarke's lead and Duvall's ensemble, the music in Splish-Splash conveys Darin's live-show charisma nicely. The opening audience filled every table in the cabaret theater with people who were old enough to remember Darin's zenith in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but I thought the jazz-influenced music from "the age of cool" sounded good enough to excite musically curious audiences from younger generations.

Are there flaws? Sure. There are moments when the exposition drags, and its interpretation of Darin's motives is probably overly generous. There was one awkward spot when Clarke was slow to return to the stage after a costume change (he defused the tension with disarming humor). But the show's biggest flaw is its still-clunky transitions out of the archival footage that's projected onto the screen behind the stage. A little work with dissolves and cross-fading should handle that, though.

Young festival-goers will likely skip Splish-Splash based solely on its synopsis, but Clarke and the band are good enough to warrant a second look. Will a wider audience take it? Stay tuned. —Dan Conover

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