(August 28, 2017; Joliet, IL) Olivia Newton-John revealed that she had metastatic breast cancer just three months ago as she postponed several planned concert dates on her 2017 concert tour.
Just three months later, she’s on the comeback trail!
And not a minute too soon.
Newton-John played a 90-minute concert to a very friendly crowd of nearly 2,000 people here at the Rialto Square theatre on Sunday night, August 27, 2017.
On what she referred to as a “spectacular healing journey,” the ’70s and ’80s country-turned-pop superstar said that she now “feels great” since beginning a regimen that includes a combination of treatments after being told that her breast cancer had returned (and spread) in May. She was previously diagnosed with the disease in 1992 and underwent nine months of chemotherapy, a partial mastectomy and breast reconstruction back then.
Today, her battle likely continues. But if her vocal chords were any indication, then the Australian singer who initially graced America’s airwaves by way of Great Britain more than 45 years ago was absolutely right in her self-assessment, seemingly unaffected by the return of the advanced cancer that sidelined her and had some thinking the worst.
Simply put, Olivia Newton-John looked and sounded incredible. Her voice was as beautiful today as it was all those years ago, perhaps even more so after hearing it live (for the first time).
Olivia, who turns 69 in September, came up at a time when artists – especially female ones – had to be able to sing to make it in the male-dominated pop music field, so she’s always had natural talent. But the years have truly been kind to her vocals, with her singing voice apparently not losing any of its range, tone or pitch since she last reached the pop top 40 more than three decades ago.
With a mix of her famous pop hits like “Magic” and “Xanadu” (both from the 1980 cult classic movie “Xanadu”), plus some unfamiliar, yet uplifting tunes – like “Live On,” “Grace and Gratitude” and the rousing, Latin-flavored uptempo number “Not Gonna Give Into It”) – ONJ commanded the audience from start to finish. The less familiar tunes have taken on special personal meaning for the one-time superstar since she began her latest health battle.
She also had a very capable set of background singers accompanying her – and handling some of the duet duties on songs like “Suddenly” (also from the movie “Xanadu”) and her two John Travolta duets from “Grease.” Her crew helped Livvy keep the audience entertained and engaged during some of the more group-oriented numbers.
Like on one of the “Grease” duets, the top-five hit tune “Summer Nights,” where ONJ and her team divvied up the audience by boys and girls, with each group being tasked to sing the respective gender-based parts. We obliged (of course) – with the women out-performing the guys (also, of course).
On “You’re the One That I Want,” her other “Grease” duet (and a former No. 1 hit), her backup singer Steve Real stood in nicely for Travolta (as he had on “Suddenly,” on which ONJ had previously teamed with British singing legend Cliff Richard).
“You’re The One” was previewed by a video montage of various YouTube clips of hilarious homemade karaoke versions of the song, interspersed with a snippet of the original “Sandy Transformation” scene from the movie. The crowd roared in applause as the scene appeared of Olivia’s Sandy clad in that famous skin-tight black leather outfit as she stomped out her cigarette at the graduation carnival (really, though, whose high schools had graduation carnivals in the 1950s – or ever?).
I’ve always wanted to ask that question…but I digress slightly.
Anyway, it was clear we wanted our “Grease” fill, and Olivia gladly obliged. She added “Hopelessly Devoted To You” (another top-3 hit) and “We Go Together” to the two famous duets as the audience – many of whom were old enough to remember the movie’s original release in 1978 – sang along. Olivia confirmed this when she playfully asked us how many times we’d seen it (my hand was still raised when the count went above ten).
In all, Livvy did 21 songs, with four of those being joined together in a medley of her country-to-pop (or was it pop-to-country by that point) crossover hits from 1974-75: “If You Love Me,” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” Let Me Be There” and “Please, Mr. Please.”
She came out of those and went into a new, calypso-styled arrangement of “Physical,” her signature single that wound up being the biggest hit of the 1980s by spending ten weeks at No. 1 at a time when that was unheard of (it’s happened more than 30 times since). The new arrangement was surprisingly satisfying, prompting me to comment that I liked it better than the original – which admittedly wasn’t my favorite ONJ song.
Sadly, my favorite by her – 1978’s “A Little More Love” – was left off the list, as were other top-five hits like “Heart Attack” and “Make A Move On Me.” Still, knowing what she’s been through in the past few months, she could have decided to shelve all her hits for a night of Taylor Swift covers and I might have been happy.
Well, maybe not THAT happy. But you get the point. Olivia’s graciousness for her fans and for life in general shone on nearly every song she breezed through, and the inspiration she provided us far outweighed any personal disappointment for certain song omissions.
What she did add in were two tunes inspired by her love of animals, the ethical treatment of which she has championed as a cause for most of her adult life. With animal-inspired videos playing on the screen behind her, she sang “The Promise (Dolphin Song)” and “Don’t Cut Me Down” – the latter a nod to animals’ natural habitats.
But she saved the night’s most poignant moments for the end. In what I’m sure were tear-jerking moments for some in attendance, Olivia broke into a key- and tone-perfect, slightly slowed-down version of her first No. 1 pop (and country) hit in America, “I Honestly Love You.”
She followed that with an encore performance of “Over The Rainbow,” the classic pop standard made famous by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz” nearly 80 years ago.
Perhaps that tune, itself linked to a beloved film that has been an iconic American fixture for decades, has been a career inspiration for Newton-John. Olivia has such a film (and the iconic songs that went with it) in her repertoire, and next year many of her fans will be helping her celebrate its 40th anniversary.
But Olivia Newton-John is so much more than “Grease,” as she showed us in Joliet, IL, on Sunday night.
She’s a beautiful person – apparently inside and out – and we were as privileged and blessed to be able to see her as she felt to be standing there performing for us.
It’s a night I certainly won’t forget.
Thank you, Olivia, for your “Grace and Gratitude.”
We love you,…
…we honestly love you.
Olivia Newton-John’s Joliet Setlist (August 27, 2017):
- Deeper Than The Night
- Don’t Stop Believin’
- (Medley) If You Love Me/Have You Never Been Mellow/Please Mr. Please/Let Me Be There
- The Promise (the Dolphin Song)
- Don’t Cut Me Down
- Live On
- Not Gonna Give Into It
- You’re The One That I Want
- Hopelessly Devoted To You
- Summer Nights
- We Go Together
- Grace and Gratitude
- I Honestly Love You
- Over the Rainbow