Taking on a town known more for demolishing disco than giving it a feverish embrace takes some Aussie chutzpah — and at least three sets of tight white pants, ideally not too crumpled from the 747 ride from Down Under. The only "Tragedy" those who still care about the brothers Gibb want to hear about comes attached with the line, "The feeling's gone and you can't go on."
Actually, "The Australian Bee Gees Show" fudges the Australian part a tad. Paul Lines (Robin Gibb) and Jack Leftley (Maurice) are authentic Aussies but Matt Baldoni, whose formidable skills really drive this show as Barry, actually is a Vegas guy, just as "The Australian Bee Gees Show" comes to us directly from that lux joint, the Excalibur Hotel and Casino, albeit with some new visual bells and whistles, maybe even with Broadway in mind (these same savvy producers did very well with "Rain," a Beatles show). Then again, the Bee Gees were born British, not an hour away from the Fab Four (and Robin retained quite the British accent), so they fudged their heritage too, even if Australia understandably claimed them as favorite sons. The Bee Gees, in their day, were bigger even than their hair.
One has to admire the directness of the title. If you find yourself at "The Australian Bee Gees Show" having spent a lifetime despising their signature three-part harmonies and admonitions that you should be dancin', yeah, then you either are trying to show how deep is your love or you weren't paying much attention to how you spend your leisure time. This show is not really for the casual disco fan — we're talking hardcore Bee Gees repertory here, all the way from "New York Mining Disaster 1941" and "Massachusetts" (which, pinch me, were recorded 46 years ago and really show the group's early interest in Merseybeat song stylings to the disco-era classics), "Jive Talkin'," "Grease" and, the signature ditty, "Night Fever." The show has minimal book, but it trots out a whole lot of admirably varied Bee Gees hits in two hours, all performed with competence if not total veracity. All in all, the show is, musically, reasonably adept.
This particular catalog makes it tough because we remember the Bee Gees repertoire as highly produced. So it's much harder to replicate. So do the high notes reached by Barry Gibb, sounds inaccessible to most mortal males. Baldoni cheats a bit on some note that BG sang falsetto and he takes it down an octave, but it's really not a bad facsimile. The mix needs improvement. The real guys really punched those three-part harmonies, which is what the paying customers have shown up to hear and this bass-heavy mix muddies the treble of the vocals. With sharper attention to hard edges, this trio could overcome Leftley's disconcerting youth and sound just fine. And if they had a real script, and wigs with a bit more of a swoosh, these amusing actors could do more.
I'd make the case that the Bee Gees are a good subject for a show such as this one. They certainly had musical range and longevity; two of three brothers are deceased so it's not like you can go and see the real McCoy anymore; and for those of us of a certain age, their songs vividly, embarrassingly, evoke a precise time and place of our misspent youths. Unlike "Rain," which trotted out a Beatles narrative that we all know, the Bee Gees story is less familiar and could stand retelling. For example, I always felt that the Bee Gees' position in disco mania was intentionally voyeuristic and asexual; they always had an element of the bystander, not really getting down, nor really putting any skin on the dance floor. Maybe it's because they were brothers, but stuff like that, surely, merits explorations.
You certainly don't get much of any story here, which is a shame. The first few minutes, when it's not clear where we are or the date on the calendar, are especially muddy. Later in the show, we get to specific concerts, which helps. And once certain hits crank up, the audience easily takes to its feet, which is what it came to do. "The Australian Bee Gees Show" is, in essence, another Chicago tryout: the piece yet needs more sophisticated video, richer dialogue, deeper narrative and some contemplation of what the Gibbs were really all about, just as "Jersey Boys" tries to wrestle deeper truths out of The Four Seasons. Of the two, the Bee Gees had the longer collective, cohesive career and their ballads were played, aspirationally, in just as many bedrooms.
When: Through Aug. 4
Where: Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $35-$80 at 800-775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com