McKenney is relishing his role as Dusty Springfield’s loyal hairdresser Rodney, who wears a succession of flamboyant vintage clothes and speaks in a “theatrical” Yorkshire accent.
“He’s got a lot of heart,” McKenney says.
“He was with Dusty right from the very beginning of her career and he was there at the end.
“He was more like her confidante and one of her best friends, so he was there through the highs and the lows and his whole life was to serve Dusty well in both the style department and the friendship department.
“I kind of like the fact he’s not just a clichéd camp hairdresser … there are definitely those moments, which are fun and they’re always a crowd-pleaser, but he’s got more depth than that.”
The new Australian production of Dusty, which opens in Adelaide on New Year’s Eve, stars Amy Lehpamer from The Sound of Music in the title role and also features Virginia Gay (TV’s Winners & Losers) as dresser and tea lady Peg.
The show is a journey through the life and songs of Dusty Springfield, who came to fame in the 1960s and is known for a string of hits such as “Son of a Preacher Man”, “The Look of Love”, “In the Middle of Nowhere” and “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”.
It promises audiences the chance to “re-live the magic of the swinging ’60s”, but McKenney says it also covers darker periods, such as Springfield’s battle with alcohol and drugs and her eventual death from cancer.
“A lot of the audience are in tears a lot of the time in the second half.
“I find that flattering from a cast point of view and a story-telling point of view, because obviously you’ve reached them, and in a musical often that’s hard to do.”
Despite her phenomenal success early in her career, Springfield – who had a number of romantic relationships with women – took a hiatus from performing in the mid-1970s and lived as a recluse for some years. In the musical, it is Rodney who pushes her to get help for her addictions and return to the stage.
In 1979, she performed at the Royal Albert Hall, then in the late 1980s she did several recordings with the Pet Shop Boys.
McKenney admits that while he loves Springfield’s songs, he knew little about her life until he was cast in Dusty.
“I didn’t know she was a lesbian, I didn’t know she was an alcoholic, I didn’t know she was a drug addict, I didn’t know what her upbringing was, and that’s been part of the fun for me – learning the back-story.
“This musical doesn’t gloss over all that … it explores all of that stuff, which is really refreshing.”
McKenney, who began his professional career at the Festival Theatre in Adelaide in 1983 in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance, says returning to the city is always a pleasure. He still has friends here, and loves walking around North Adelaide admiring the heritage buildings.
The performer says he also likes checking out the Adelaide Festival Centre’s treasure trove of memorabilia.
“There’s a lot of photos of me in old shows – of a very young me – all through the backstage of that theatre.
“It’s like a trip down memory lane.”
Dusty will be at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, from December 31 until January 22.
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