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A Repertoire as Wide as His Travels

Aussie Cabaret Singer David Campbell Brings His Rock-to-'Stardust' Act to Costa Mesa


David Campbell covers a lot of ground as a cabaret singer--and not just because, as an Australian, he has to ocean-hop while pursuing a budding stateside career.

In his act--which continues through Sunday in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--the 27-year-old with the movie-star looks dips into the expected hoard of standards. But he also likes to pull out a guitar for a stroll back through his teenage years, when he busked and sang in rock bands.

In Campbell's sets, "Stardust" can live alongside a song by Eric Idle of "Monty Python" fame. The weave might include a Bobby Darin medley, Jimmy Webb's "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" and songs from a couple of Down Under rock bands, Crowded House and Moving Pictures.

Not long ago, Campbell said, he shared a stage with Andrea Marcovicci and tried to persuade the cabaret star to sing Abba's "Dancing Queen" with him. She demurred.

When reached Tuesday, Campbell was in a car, being shepherded to and from business meetings in Los Angeles. He was upbeat despite jet lag. And he was lusting for "Abba's Greatest Hits" and the new U2 album, both of which he aimed to acquire before the day was out.

"It's almost like an addiction," he said of his compact disc habit.

Campbell comes by his musical omnivorousness by blood and by upbringing. His father is Jimmy Barnes, a huge rock star in Australia known for his raspy belting. But Campbell didn't know his true parentage until he was 11.

"My father and mother were 17 when I was born. I was the product of a one-night stand; it was kind of a mistake," he said, without any shadow of darkness in his voice.

He spent his childhood thinking that the grandmother who played a lot of Nat "King" Cole and Johnny Mathis around the house was his mother and that his actual mother was his sister.

Coming to terms with the belatedly revealed truth on the cusp of adolescence was no easy thing, Campbell said.

His father came into his life, but "I was scared to tell people in high school. He was such a huge influence to everybody, and such a cult figure. It would be like living in New Jersey and having Bruce Springsteen as your father and not being able to tell anybody. I had this lie to live with every day, and I was going wild."

At 19, Campbell got a taste of the rock 'n' roll life when he tagged along for a month while his father toured Australia.

They didn't get along well, and Campbell availed himself of the readily accessible booze "and other different substances you shouldn't be doing. It didn't make me feel really good about myself."

Soon afterward he fell into acting, having always been a ham. He started with dramatic roles. When he was offered parts in musicals, he studied the Broadway tradition and began his immersion in cabaret.

In 1995, Campbell took a master class from Barbara Cook, the American Broadway and cabaret star. High praise from her helped solidify his career in Australia and gave him a calling card to American venues.

He earned good reviews on the New York City cabaret scene. Earlier this year he landed his first major U.S. musical, starring for the three-month, off-Broadway run of "Saturday Night," Stephen Sondheim's long-submerged first show that had not been staged in New York.

Over the past year, Campbell has noticed some younger faces turning up in his audiences.

"People my age or even younger are coming, and that's comforting. I think word of mouth got out that I do a lot of different things."

Next on his agenda is a confrontation with his personal past. He will play Johnny O'Keefe, Australia's first home-grown rocker, in a musical that will tour Down Under for six months starting late in December. "[He] had a very similar energy to my father. That's why they talked to me about it," Campbell said.

During his early 20s, Campbell was able to sort out his adolescent confusion, he said. He and his father now root for each other and occasionally have performed together.

O'Keefe rose to Aussie prominence while opening for touring American rock 'n' roll greats during the 1950s. He wrote and recorded one rock 'n' roll classic, "Real Wild Child" (also known as "Wild One"). The musical is called "Shout!" after the Isley Brothers number that became O'Keefe's signature song.

O'Keefe died of a heart attack in 1978, his history having been strewn with hard drinking and emotional breakdowns.

Campbell said some of the show's backers "wanted to sanitize the story," but he argued, successfully, for keeping the grime along with the glory.

Also in 2001, Campbell hopes to record and issue his third album, which he foresees taking a "more commercial, rock-pop" bent than his previous records, which were anchored in old and new songs written for the stage and cabaret.

"I don't want to do standards alone," he said. "Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Chet Baker have done it, and much better than I can. I want to create something new."

As the conversation ended, Campbell speculated about the day when cabaret singers will augment their shows not just with a piano player--as he does--but with a deejay inserting samples and fragments of poetry into the mix.

"Anything is possible in music now. It's all so accessible and there's such a wide range that it's not a matter of anything can happen, but anything will happen. That's why it's so exciting for me. I want a piece of that."


David Campbell, Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tonight, 7:30; Saturday, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. $45-$49. (714) 556-2787.

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