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Roy Orbison tribute hits high note

A musical tribute to Roy Orbison sets a high bar. The sound of this iconic American singer/songwriter’s four-octave vocal range can mesmerize pop music listeners and vocal experts alike. Luckily, Camelot Theatre has Erik Connolly starring in its “Spotlight on Roy Orbison.”

Connolly has the range to sing Orbison — as well as the classical training that Orbison never received — and Connolly’s voice can both croon and boom in the surprising way that Orbison’s did. It was apparent from the evening’s first song, “Only the Lonely.”

Directed by Presila Quinby with musical direction and arrangements by Karl Iverson, Camelot’s “Spotlight” presents 21 of Orbison’s hits. They range from his earliest, a typical 1950’s-style rock song called “Ooby Dooby,” through “End of the Line/Handle With Care,” a song he wrote and recorded with the Traveling Wilburys, the unlikely pickup band formed in 1987 on a whim by Tom Petty, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Orbison.

The evening’s musical styles range from classic rock’n’roll through rhythm-and-blues, jazz, Caribbean and into the complicated and surreal tonalities introduced by the Beatles or Bob Dylan but it is Orbison’s haunting and distinctive tremulous voice that is in the spotlight here.

Orbison wrote most of his hit songs, many with collaborators Joe Melson or Bill Dees. This “Spotlight” has his standards like “Pretty Woman,” “Blue Bayou,” “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again” and “Crying” as well as some of the successful songs written by others, such as “Mean Woman Blues,” “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream?)” or “The Great Pretender.”

Connolly accompanies the songs on rhythm guitar. He is backed onstage by a skilled group of local musicians with Brent Norton on lead guitar, Steve Fain on bass, Steve Sutfin on percussion and Iverson on keyboard.

The band and backup singers Marlena Gray and Kathleen Marrs provide unobtrusive but effective vocals for Orbison’s often complex harmonies. Gray and Marrs also serve as the evening’s narrators.

Like the vocal trajectory in most of his songs, Orbison’s life started out remarkably nondescript, built to a startling crescendo and then ended unexpectedly. Scriptwriter Catherine Noah (city editor of the Mail Tribune) has a good tale to tell and she deftly incorporates Orbison’s own words from interviews and observations by friends and colleagues into the story.

Orbison’s natural shyness and awkwardness on stage were responsible for his “look.” He dyed his pale blond hair black and wore all-black clothes to stand out. His trademark thick dark sunglasses — many people thought Orbison was blind — were initially the result of losing his prescription glasses on an airplane before a performance. Hiding behind the dark glasses on stage gave him confidence so he kept them.

Orbison’s first wife — whom he met when she was 14 — died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 25. Two of his sons died in a fire at his parents’ home while Orbison was on tour. He met his second wife, a German, while touring Europe. When they married in 1969, she was 17 and he was 33. He underwent triple bypass coronary surgery in 1978 at the age of 42.

Orbison continued to tour through the 1970’s, finding that while his career faltered in the United States, he was an icon in Europe. He was “rediscovered” in the 1980s, winning a Grammy award for a duet with Linda Ronstadt and seeing his song “In Dreams” — used without his permission — become the surrealistic theme for David Lynch’s cult film “Blue Velvet.”

Orbison died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 52.

“Spotlight on Roy Orbison” plays at Camelot through Sunday, January 25 with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, call 541-535-5250 or go to www.camelottheatre.org.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.

Erik Connolly fills the role of Roy Orbison in Camelot Theatre's spotlight on the late singer and songwriter. Photo courtesy of Steve Sutfin