By Dave Tianen Journal Sentinel pop music critic
|At 50, she is surely the world's oldest
singing sugar cookie.
But give Olivia Newton-John her due. As she demonstrated Saturday night at the Riverside Theatre, Newton-John is taking perkiness into distant and uncharted shores. At an age when most folks are confronting their dawning AARP eligibility, Olivia Newton-John still bounces into a room like she just came from cheerleader practice.
If you think about it, Newton-John was as much a '70s musical pioneer as Bruce Springsteen or Led Zeppelin. Try to imagine Shania Twain or Faith Hill if Olivia hadn't first blazed the trail for cutie-pies hawking bubbly pop melodies sprinkled with a light dusting of country heartache. That's not the kind of legacy that sets critical hearts aflutter, but it's been a killer of a successful formula.
It's been 16 years since her last hit and in the '90s she's gotten more attention for her successful battle with breast cancer than for her music. The middle-aged cast of Saturday's crowd suggests there are definite limits to Xer nostalgia about "Grease." Be that as it may, the virginal charms that once made her America's Aussie sweetheart are still there: peppy good cheer and perky blond good looks interwoven with a pretty, yet essentially colorless singing style.
Saturday's show was a mix of expected hits such as "Let Me Be There," "Physical," "Xanadu," "Magic," "Please, Mr. Please," "You're the One That I Want," "If You Love Me (Let Me Know)" and "I Honestly Love You," with familiar cover songs.
Not surprisingly, she tended to sing tunes by folks that share her own confectionary instincts: Paul McCartney's "Long and Winding Road," John Denver's "Take Me Home Country Roads" and the Carpenters' "Close to You." She sang them competently but unimaginatively, without any touches of phrasing or coloration or dramatic emphasis that would have put her own stamp on them.
If you were to capture Newton-John in one word, it would be nice. She seems to be a nice lady who sings nice songs in a nice style. She sings like a Miss America pageant contestant.
Opening was an exceptionally wretched comic named Steve Ferguson. There was a brief period in the middle of his set where Ferguson managed to wrestle a few tepid laughs from such familiar terrain as Packer mania and obesity in Dairyland. The rest of the time he was about as amusing as an ingrown toenail.
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last updated January 13, 2003