By Renee Lawrence
It was 22 years to the day that singer Olivia Newton-John last performed in Oklahoma City, and a fan reminded her of that during a performance Wednesday night at Civic Center Music Hall. Newton-John, 55, responded by stooping and gumming, “I hope it’s not another 22 years” before I return.”
It’s also been 29 years since the British-born, Aussie-bred singer sold out back-to-back concerts at the Civic Center in 1975, but those years have been good to Newton-John, who looked trim and youthful. The distinctively sweet, high, clear voice that made her a pop superstar has aged well, too, sounding pleasingly deeper and a bit throatier.
Newton-John sang selections from her albums of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, and also offered a couple of songs from her upcoming “Indigo” album.
The singer, always playful and joking, found an appreciative audience and offered a night of music that ranged from touching and tender, to rousing and playful, to defiant, to achingly bittersweet – with a good measure of levity thrown in.
The only awkward part of the concert was the opening, which got off to a slow start as Newton-John’s five-piece band joined the Oklahoma City Philharmonic in a long instrumental medley of some of her best-loved songs but with the singer nowhere to be seen. Finally, Newton-John joined in, singing offstage, then taking the stage to warm applause.
She kicked the concert into high gear with the energetic, disco-esque “Xanadu,” from her 1980 movie and album of the same name, as she mock roller-skated and danced across the stage. A cheery Newton-John then stopped to greet the crowd before singing two more songs from that same film, “Magic” and “Suddenly.”
Her emotional rendering of idol Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” showed nuanced control. That same song won a radio contest for a 15-year-old Newton-John. The prize was a trip to England, where her career got its real start.
After introducing her band and two backup singers, she teasingly asked if anyone in the audience liked country music. Saying she was now going to perform some of her country songs, she told the audience, “If anyone feels like joining in … please don’t, because you’re going to mess us up.”
She and her band then gathered at the edge of the stage to sing “Let Me Be There,” “Please Mr. Please” and “If You Love Me.”
A highlight of the evening was Newton-John’s stylish bossa-nova take on “Physical,” the raunchy 1981 song that became an early MTV video hit, and it got an enthusiastic crowd response. She joked at song’s end that “Physical,” which she’s proud of because it’s the only song of hers that was ever banned, now sounds like a lulluby when compared to today’s music.
She also talked about her breast cancer in 1992 and how she wrote the album “Gaia” in 1994 as a reflection on that experience. She said she wrote her next song on a night when she didn’t know how she could get through to the morning. What followed was an exuberant anthem of defiance, “Not Gonna Give Into It,” set to a Latin beat, which had Newton-John dancing all over the stage while clenching between her teeth a rose she had been given by a fan just moments before. It was a rousing crowd-pleaser. A nearly breathless Newton-John joked afterward, “I actually feel like I’m about to give into it.”
When Newton-John donned a black satin letter jacket, the crowd knew what was coming. She and one of her singers joined for the duet “The One That I Want,” made famous by Newton-John and John Travolta in the 1978 film adaptation of “Grease.” Also from that movie, she sang “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which was followed by an audience rehearsal and sing-along of “Summer Nights.” She chided the audience for not making enough noise, saying she knew they could do better, then broke into “Oklahoma!” to the delight of the audience.
During the encore, she sang a sweet, touching rendition of “Alfie.”
For her final song, she sang “I Honestly Love You,” which sounded as tender and sincere as when she first sang it in 1974. But the ballad about unrequited love had a different ending Wednesday. On that night, the audience returned the love.