And she was fantastic. It was a wonderful experience, not least because I shared it with some special people. For my sister the ticket was a birthday surprise from her boyfriend. She thought we were all going out dancing.
I haven't seen a show like this before, and early on I wondered if it was going to be a bit too fake and corny to really get into. But Dolly quickly won me over. Her singing was great, the material varied, her banter warm and engaging - even if some of her jokes are old and much-repeated.
"I'm so glad you all could come out tonight ... cause I need the money! No, really, it costs a lot of money to look this cheap." Groan, a Dolly classic - at the merchandise stand you could buy a pink t-shirt with this printed on it.
The country-cabaret style was different to any show I've been to. Many of the songs were quite short or in medley form, including, in the first half, a set of songs her grandfather used to sing. I would have loved more time spent on this old-timey music. In the second half (there was no support, just about two hours of 68-year-old Dolly and her band, with a 20 minute intermission) she did a medley of several of her hits. I guess this was fit in as many of the songs people come to hear as possible. Across the whole show it was quite a varied program, including her own songs and covers as well as older roots music from her childhood.
'Jolene' came up really early in the show, as well as a great version of Dylan's 'Don't think twice,' sung together with the two female backing singers. The first half ended on a high note with Bon Jovi's 'Lay your hands on me' which finished the set. This was a total surprise for me: I didn't know til later that it's on her latest album. In the second half, 'Little Sparrow' was stunning, there was a Billy Joel cover ('Travellin' Prayer'), a less exciting cover of Collective Soul's 'Shine,' a lovely 'Banks of the Ohio' (with a shout-out to Olivia Newton-John), and the aforementioned medley including songs like 'Bargain Store,' 'Love is like a butterfly' and 'But you know I love you.' The high point of the second half for me was 'Islands in the stream.' I'm such a sucker for a good Bee Gees song, as well as for a good duet. It was followed by '9-5', which was fun, and a finale of 'I will always love you.' Neither of these surpassed Islands, for me anyway.
Dolly played quite a range of instruments during the show, each only for a short period though. Even with long fake nails, it seems she can play anything if it has enough rhinestones plastered on it! Everything she picked up sparkled (just like everything she wore): harmonica, dulcimer, autoharp, banjo, pennywhistle/recorder (I was sitting up high and couldn't quite tell), and violin. Most surprising was a saxophone (a curved soprano, I think) which was a bit of a novelty act where she played the Benny Hill theme.
Okay, given past admissions/suggestions, it's possible she mimed some of her playing, and it seems she has lip synced some parts of concerts before. If she did, I couldn't tell (I wasn't sitting very close and I was off to the side). It wouldn't be inconsistent with the vibe and production values of her show, and I don't even mean that in a bad way. She is there to entertain and put on the show her fans expect and love. Just like with her face and body - one of her often-repeated lines is "If I see something sagging, bagging and dragging, I'm going to nip it, tuck it, and suck it!" she probably wouldn't shy away from enhancing her performance with a little pre-recording.
Dolly talked a lot between songs, a practised patter that, though peppered with familiar jokes and lines, was genuine and engaging. She talked a lot about her mountain childhood and her beloved, dirt-poor parents (married at 15 and 17, had 12 children by their 30's) but everything she said was kept pretty positive and sentimental. She has just launched her long-running literacy program into Australia so that was mentioned of course, apparently inspired by her father who did not get an education.
From other reviews and interviews, she seems to always be perceived as very kind, funny, and charming. She jokes about herself but is not exactly self-deprecating, as she always seems to own and be proud of her choices. She constantly takes on the obvious topics like her trashy style of dress, plastic surgery, and those famous breasts (she made many references to her bust size during the show).
Dolly was of course dressed in her signature perfectly tailored, tacky, spangled outfits and sky high heels. The set decor was pretty old fashioned and simple - a butterfly-shaped screen behind the stage showed slides or video that tied in with the songs, usually in a pretty simple and literal way. For example, during 'Coat of Many Colours,' it was an image of a child waking down a dirt road with a colourful patchwork coat on. I had thought it might be more of a 'diva' show (a la Cher or Kylie perhaps) with lots of costume changes and fancy effects. But actually Dolly only changed her outfit once, at the intermission, and the band and three backing singers (all excellent) mostly kept in the background, dressed in plain black, except for some carefully choreographed interactions with Dolly on certain songs.