Only Olivia Fan Club

Fantasy Springs, Indio, CA

Oct 6, 2002

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Desert Springs
by Matt Bamberg
Oct 3 2002

From Sandy in the 1978 film "Grease" to Bitsy Mae Harling in the current cult hit "Sordid Lives," Olivia Newton-John has gently rock and rolled through a career that's very rarely been mellow.

From recording early hits such as "Have You Never Been Mellow" and winning mega-stardom for her role in the film, "Grease," to taking time off for motherhood and confronting breast cancer, Newton-John has transformed her life as often as John Travolta has transformed his career

She performs Sunday at Fantasy Springs Outdoor Amphitheater in Indio -- the last stop of a Heartstrings Tour that marks yet another transformation in her life and career.

She's not only a recording star whose career spans the fields of country, pop, folk and rock, she's a film icon whose role in "Grease" is reaching a new generation with its release last month on DVD.

In the Coachella Valley, she's known for even greater transformations. As a leather-clad, guitar-playing ex-con in "Sordid Lives," she has become a cult figure who is leaps-and-bounds from the '70s Sandy of "Grease" and '80s Kira in the so-bad-it-was-good, let's-get-physical film, "Xanadu."

"Sordid Lives' " popularity has spread to several East Coast and Midwestern cities, but nowhere is it the viewer magnet it is at the Camelot Theatres in Palm Springs.   "The biggest kick I get out of it is watching the audience," said Gari Chandler, projectionist at Camelot Theater, where the film is in its 47th week. "Some people have been here 18 to 20 times."

The soundtrack to "Sordid Lives," featuring Newton-John's song of saints, sinners, brunches and dinners, is available for sale at the theater box office. That's how popular this movie is in Palm Springs. But Chandler gets to listen to it daily over the sounds of the winding wheels of the projection room in which he works.  "I've played the film 1,288 times and know every word," he said.

John Lambert, the film's distributor at Regent Entertainment, says the reaction to Newton-John's role in "Sordid Lives" is usually recited with tongue in cheek. "They ask, 'What's happened to Olivia?' " he said. "But the film's had a phenomenal response considering that the critics were severe. People's reaction to a tough-edged tattooed Olivia -- and the unique performances by all the cast members -- have them going home from their Palm Springs holiday to tell their friends."

But don't expect to see a hard-bitten, tattooed biker chick on stage at Fantasy Springs this weekend. Olivia has changed again and is performing with a full-scale symphony orchestra.

She refused to give an interview to advance her Indio performance, but Newton-John said in other interviews on the road from St. Petersburg, Fla., to Pittsburgh. that she's performing her most popular hits because that is why people come to her concerts.

Still, the musicians she'll be working with at Fantasy Springs don't know what to expect. Will it be the greaser? The biker chick? The mellow country star? The physically fit mom?

Big band leader Ted Herman, who worked as a Rat Pack back-up saxophonist for decades, has been hired to recruit local musicians to join the core of musicians and back-up singers who will travel with her to Indio from her previous performance in the Paris Casino in Las Vegas. "I've never worked with her," Herman said. "She's bringing in her crew, so we'll follow them."

One can expect a slower, jazzy version of some songs to emphasize the symphony orchestra.  But when it comes to predicting whether Newton-John will target her long-time fans, her "Sordid Lives" fans or a new symphonic audience at this concert, don't make any bets. Just expect her to be different.

Thanks to Simonie Hodges

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