Had "Amadeus"been a rock musical, it might have looked like "Elton John in Australia" (Showtime, 10 p.m., simulcast on WBMW-FM 106.7). In fact, John looks more than a tad like an older Tom Hulce, less so when he's wearing his Mozart wig and Bob Mackie version of classical tails than when he's wearing a typically outrageous Mackie glitter jacket and a multicolored wig that would look just as comfortable on Tina Turner's head. Rock me, Amadeus, indeed!
John's propensity for visual opulence is matched here aurally: Not only does he work with his usual 13-piece band, but five songs into a 17-song program, he brings on the 88-member Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. What's the gain? Not all that much, except perhaps for John's ego.
On elegant tunes like "Sixty Years On" and "Candle in the Wind," Paul Buckmaster's orchestrations tend to be underplayed and therefore effective. On rockers like "Take Me to the Pilot" and "The King Must Die," the bombastic instrumental surges are tedious and predictable. On the lovely "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," John starts off simply, but then races to a lush, overblown climax. It's a little like playing basketball with 12 men to a side; it should be interesting, but it's just overcrowded.
This 90-minute concert was filmed at the end of John's Australian tour last year; immediately afterward, he announced his (probably temporary) retirement and went in for throat surgery. His voice doesn't sound that ragged, but at times there's a noticeable rasp, and he seems to work hard for the higher notes. John's piano playing remains crisp, though one long show-off section in "Bennie & the Jets" seems to go on forever without getting anywhere.
The program, which kicks off with "I'm Still Standing" and ends with "Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting," encompasses many of John's better (i.e. pre-1975) collaborations with lyricist Bernie Taupin. Among the highlights: a simple, gentle "Daniel" (done before the orchestra joins the band), the sweet innocence of "The Greatest Discovery" and an emotional "Your Song." John's ballads have distinctive graces, but the up-tempo songs seem to be more homogenized.
Despite frequent close-ups, there's nothing intimate about this performance; it's all lights, cameras, excess. Sometimes you wish John would whisk off the wigs and just play -- but then again, somebody has to step into Liberace's shoes.
"Elton John in Australia" will be repeated July 16, 19, 22, 27 and 31.