Only Olivia Fan Club

Austin Symphony, TX

Sept 27, 2002

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By Michael Barnes
Sept 30 2002

With thanks to David Grant

Which Olivia Newton-John would perform the first concert at the new Palmer Events Center? Would it be the wholesome, sun-kissed Newton-John, cooing about honest love and rhetorical mellowness? Or the campy, self-mocking Newton-John of the cult movie musical, "Grease," and the roller-bunny disaster, "Xanadu"?

Both, actually. Friday, audiences who strolled into the gargantuan exhibition hall on Barton Springs Road -- which replaces the old Palmer Auditorium, slated to become the Long Center for the Performing Arts -- appeared divided about which act they were attending. Western duds, eveningwear and a smattering of more outrageous costumes mixed liberally.

The venue itself -- almost 2 acres of column-free space -- swallowed the rock-concert-style stage. One expected a distorted sound in such a boxy volume, but the amplification was surprising well modulated. Seeing was another matter, since 3,000 seats arranged on a flat floor translate into craned necks and fidgeting for better sight lines.

Ostensibly, Newton-John was to perform with the Austin Symphony Orchestra. Yet the orchestra accompanied the singer -- who brought along a fine backup band -- for only a fraction of the songs.

No matter. The audience came for Newton-John. She glided onstage in a sparkly, lavender two-piece gown, the dowdiness of which did nothing to accentuate the next surprise -- for someone whose career took off in 1963, she looks fabulous! And she sounded great. Newton-John dutifully sang pop hits, such as "I Honestly Love You" and songs written for Nashville.

The only disappointment was her straight treatment of the songs from "Xanadu" and her novelty hits such as "Physical." A little camp -- just a headband or some roller skates-- would have served as a wink to the knowing. When she donned a leather jacket for the "Grease" sequence, for instance, both segments of the crowd crowed with approval.

All else aside, Newton-John proved a gracious star. She accepted gifts and flowers from admirers, while chatting in between numbers with anyone who approached the stage. I'm not sure many other performers could warm the vastness of the Palmer Center with such sunshine.

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