you got it! a salute to roy orbison: vocal phenom john stephan belts out a tribute to ‘the big o’

John StephanJohn Stephan is the only singer who can do justice to my father’s music,” says Roy Orbison’s son Wesley in a recorded message that opens “You Got It! A Salute to Roy Orbison,” showing four evenings per week at The Maui Theatre in Lahaina. Australian-born Stephan’s four-octave range deftly handles Orbison’s complex compositions and dark emotional ballads in a show that takes you on an entertaining journey down Memory Lane.

Stephan doesn’t try to imitate Orbison’s unique vocal style. Instead, he takes audience members through the storied career of Orbison, covering a multitude of his chart-topping hits. Orbison’s son Wesley provides commentary on his father’s life throughout the show, and Stephan puts the music in the context of Roy Orbison’s life—one that was filled with great success, and an equal measure of sadness and heartbreak.

Wasting no time, Stephan opens the show with the titular song “You Got It,” and is joined on stage by three dancers dressed in white sequined dresses with matching gloves, who strut on silver platform shoes, displaying long, shapely gams. It’s legs, legs, and more legs! Stephan hits the song’s high notes with confidence, clearly demonstrating why he’s been dubbed “The Voice From Down Under.”

Orbison and collaborator Joe Melson wrote a song in early 1960 which featured a note Orbison hit in falsetto that showcased a powerful voice which, according to biographer Alan Clayson, “came not from his throat but deeper within.” The song was “Only the Lonely”; Orbison and Melson had pitched the song to Elvis Presley and the Everly Brothers, but both had turned it down. Stephan invites his audience to “sing along if you know the words—they’re very simple: Dum-dum-dum-dumdy-doo-wah,” which elicits a laugh and some endearing off-key audience participation. While his dancers punctuate the song with precise arm movements, Stephan displays his own falsetto skills on the high notes, then quips: “I can’t possibly be lonely with these lovely women behind me.”

Orbison and his wife Claudette shared a love for motorcycles. But tragedy struck in 1966, when he and Claudette were riding home to Hendersonville from Bristol, Tennessee. She collided with a semi-trailer truck and died instantly. “Roy write ‘Blue Angel’ as a tribute to Claudette,” says Stephan. As he gently croons this moving ballad, a solo dancer performs a lovely ballet, aglow in a single spotlight.

Tragedy struck Orbison again in 1968, when he received the news that his home in Hendersonville, Tennessee, had burned down, and his two eldest sons had died in the fire. Afterwards, Wesley, his youngest son with Claudette, was raised by Orbison’s parents. “One of my favorite things was to turn on the wireless, listen to my dad’s songs with my grandfather, and imagine he [his dad] was with me,” says Wesley in another recorded message.

“In Dreams,” written by Roy Orbison in 1963, was used in the movie “Blue Velvet” against his wishes. Orbison was initially shocked at its use, but later, after he’d seen the film in a theater in Malibu, said, “I was mortified because they were talking about the ‘candy colored clown’ in relation to a dope deal. But later I really got to appreciate what the song gave to the movie—how it achieved this otherworldly quality that added a whole new dimension to ‘In Dreams.’”

Orbison continued to mourn Claudette’s death. Two years after, he recorded “Too Soon To Know,” with lyrics by Don Gibson. “It’s too soon to know if I can forget her; my heart’s been broken in too many pieces; and it’s too soon to know.” After performing this eloquent tribute to Claudette, Stephan exits the stage, and a brief film depicting his rise to fame from the Bluebird Cafe in Australia, to wowing tens of thousands of screaming fans at a 2008 music festival, is projected onto the theatre’s screen.

In a nod to our host culture, Stephan performs “E O Mai,” by Keali‘i Reichel, which he first heard when he and his family flew from Australia to Hawai‘i earlier this year. “This song put my six-month-old son to sleep during that 15-hour flight,” he says, “and now I have to sing it to him every night. It’s his favorite song.” Ably accompanied by solo guitarist Sam Ahia, Stephan’s rendition of this popular song is as soft as the Maui breeze, and his Hawaiian pronunciation is admirable.

Orbison wrote the song “Leah” when he visited Hawai‘i in 1962. “I’ve never met so many women named ‘Leah’ as I have here on Maui,” Stephan jokes. As he sings “Gotta…find some pearls today to make a pretty necklace for Leah,” a solo dancer performs a lovely hula, while a vivid Hawaiian sunset is projected onto the curtain behind them.

“I Drove All Night” is a song written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, and made famous by Cyndi Lauper. It was originally written for Orbison, who recorded it in 1987, but his rendition wasn’t released until 1992, after the song had become a top 10 hit on both sides of the Atlantic for Lauper in 1989. The song has since been covered by Pinmonkey (2002), Celine Dion (2003), and The Protomen (2012). Stephan’s powerful rendition, and the song’s inherently addictive beat, make it impossible to resist clapping your hands in time to the rhythm.

Stephan takes a moment to introduce and acknowledge the theatre’s technical crew; his dancers Sky Fung, Nayara Oliva, and Sandra Mirley; and back-up musicians—guitarists Sam Ahia and Halemanu Villiarmo, bassist Mychal Lomas, and drummer Gill Lopez, who receive an appreciative ovation from the audience.

One of Orbison’s most popular songs, “Oh, Pretty Woman,” was written with collaborator Bill Dees. The story goes that when Claudette Orbison walked into the room where Dees and Roy were composing to say she was heading for Nashville, Roy asked if she had any money. Dees reportedly said, “Pretty woman never needs any money.” Forty minutes later, the song was completed—a riff-laden masterpiece that employs a playful growl, the idea for which came from a Bob Hope movie. Stephan definitely has the growl down pat, and his version of the song features all three dancers, who sashay onto the stage wearing flirty polka-dot dresses, with wide vinyl belts, straw hats, and white gloves.

The show ends with a famous Orbison quote projected onto the screen—“People often ask me how would I like to be remembered, and I answer that I would simply like to be remembered”—and Stephan performing a heartfelt a cappella version of Orbison’s classic “Cryin’” that nearly brings down the house.

“You Got It!” has got it, and it’s easy to see why the show has sold out around the world, including in Las Vegas where it premiered in September 2012. Says Stephan: “Maui has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. The local community is warm and inviting, and I am excited to make Maui my new home.”

–heidi pool

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