Elementary kids in the early ‘80s sometimes referred to Olivia Newton-John as “Olivia Neutron Bomb.”
Not very mature, but the intentions were more good than bad: The English-Australian superstar singer wasn’t given the nickname because she looked cold.
No, Olivia—who portrayed timid transfer student Sandra Dee Olsson in the 1978 blockbuster Grease—is still hot, thank you very much, despite health scares and other setbacks. Now five decades deep into her career, the Melbourne-raised actress continues to entrance audiences around the world with her plucky pop singles, balmy ballads, and inspirational new arias.
The blonde beaut had fans spellbound at the Hard Rock in Northfield, Ohio on Sunday (Nov. 12) when she returned to make up a concert postponed from earlier this year due to another cancer scare.
Newton-John was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. She eventually overcame her illness, but she’s since dedicated herself to helping others cope with—and conquer—the disease. A couple of the night’s numbers focused on her positive mental outlook and spiritual resurgence.
But having fun was first and foremost on Newton-John’s to-do list in Ohio.
“I need a quick drink!” she declared after dazzling with the mesmeric “Magic” and ELO-influenced “Xanadu”—both from the similarly-named 1980 fantasy film.
“Cheers, salute, bottoms up—or however you say it! And thank you for being so welcoming. I’m going to take you on a musical journey tonight through my songs and music!”
Olivia’s journey featured most of the John Farrar-penned chart singles of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, including the perky “Deeper Than the Night” and sultry duet “Suddenly,” which Newton-John sang with backup vocalist Steve Real (instead of Cliff Richard, who guested on the original recording). The piano-sprinkled “Don’t Stop Believing” harkened all the way back to Olivia’s early years in England.
“My career began in country music, much to my amazement,” she reported.
“I was an Ozzie (Australian) girl living in London, and my records were produced by an Englishman. Who knew?”
A mid-set medley saw Olivia sit center-stage flanked by her bassist and guest guitarist Andy Timmons (Danger Danger, Joe Satriani) and backed by vocalists Marlen Landin and Steve Nieves on “If You Love Me Let Me Know,” “Have You Never Been Mellow?” “Please Mr. Please,” and “Let Me Be There.” By the end of the mini-marathon Liv—now in a cowgirl hat—was back on her feet and doing a hoe-down with her cohorts.
Musical director Dane Bryant helped transform sultry smash “Physical” from ardent aerobics number to loose lounge song. Timmons accompanied on acoustic guitar, and Nieves jazzed things up with a saxophone solo.
“Can you believe that song was banned in some countries?” pondered Olivia. “Compared to what’s on the radio now, it’s practically a lullaby!”
Environmental ode “The Promise (Dolphin Song)” boasted a film clip of Newton-John swimming with some cetacean friends, but “Don’t Cut Me Down” was dedicated to anti-deforestation efforts.
“I was lucky enough to marry a wonderful man they call ‘Amazon John,’ because of all the years he spent in the rainforest looking for botanicals to heal us,” Olivia reflected. “He healed me!”
Newton-John said she wrote the moving “Live On” for her departed sister—but then worked the piece into a collaboration album with Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen Chapman about healing after grief and loss.
“It got such a strong reaction from my family and friends that we decided to do an album about loss and grief, since no one was doing that,” she reflected.“I didn’t know when we were writing the title track that it would also be for me!”
Conversely, the Latin-enlivened salsa number “Not Gonna Give In To It” sounded almost like a lost Miami Sound Machine track. Nieves played auxiliary percussion as Byrnes dialed up a few horn sounds on his synth, giving Liv and “the two Steves” an opportunity to dance.
Naturally, there were songs from that certain little musical Newton-John did with John Travolta.
“Next year is the Grease 40th anniversary,” she observed. “Can you believe it? I feel very lucky to have had this wonderful adventure with the film, and to have these songs to sing!”
The Grease gala commenced with Newton-John reprising Sandra Dee to Real’s riffing Danny Zuko on “You’re the One That I Want,” then shifted to solo Liv’s “Hopelessly Devoted to You” spotlight. The singer then invited fans to take on the role of Pink Ladies and T-Birds in the aisles for the snappy “Summer Nights” and peppy “We Go Together” (whereon Landin and Real recreated the movie’s hand-jive and Olivia did Sandy’s frisky, leather-clad carnival dance).
The philanthropic femme fatale calmed things down for humble thank-you hymn “Grace and Gratitude,” then came full circle by closing out with soft-spoken 1974 single “I Honestly Love You.”
Newton-John may be somewhere in her 60's, but the Two of a Kind songbird could pass for 40. She sounded even younger than that last night in Northfield, and—for a good 90 minutes—succeeding in making her adoring fans feel younger, too.