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Imperfect Newton-John still charms us

By LOUIS HAU, Times Staff Writer
Published November 20, 2003

TAMPA - With the glorious exception of Lynda Carter in her Wonder Woman suit, there was no finer example of the female form to my hormone-addled 14-year-old mind than the shimmering vision of Olivia Newton-John on roller stakes in the movie Xanadu.

More than two decades later, roller skates have given way to roller blades, Xanadu is rented strictly for horse laughs and whatever happened to Lynda Carter anyway? Yet there I was again in a dimmed theater Wednesday night, looking on as Newton-John entertained us.

No, her performance with the Florida Orchestra at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center wasn't exactly high art. But then, no one goes to an Olivia Newton-John concert expecting cutting-edge musical brilliance. You go to bask in a little '70s nostalgia and to catch a glimpse of an erstwhile pop-culture icon.

By those modest standards, the evening delivered, with the Aussie vocalist singing an appealing selection of her biggest hits, bonding with the audience with talk about her battle with breast cancer and, dressed in a black tank top and black lacy slacks, looking impossibly young and fresh-faced despite having long since passed the half-century mark.

The show got off to a worrisome start, with the orchestra nearly drowned out by Newton-John's drummer and bassist as the awkward ensemble backed her on pedestrian renditions of Have You Never Been Mellow and three songs in a row from the Xanadu soundtrack. The cumulative effect came perilously close to suggesting a cheesy Vegas show band.

But just as the evening threatened to degenerate into Karaoke Night at the Golden Nugget, the mood shifted mercifully as Newton-John pulled up a stool and sang a lovely version of Bob Dylan's If Not For You, kicking off a charming medley of her early pop-country hits, accompanied by just two acoustic guitars and her backup singers.

From there it was mostly smooth sailing, as Newton-John performed a surprisingly successful reworking of her 1981 megahit Physical as a subdued samba number and later generated cheers from the audience of about 1,800 as she tore through You're The One That I Want, Hopelessly Devoted To You and Summer Nights from Grease.

Newton-John finally topped off the evening with a heartfelt performance of I Honestly Love You.

Sure, the result was enough gooey schmaltz to paint your house with. But hey, she's still cute as all get out.

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