LEBANON — Can it really be more than 40 years since Olivia Newton-John burst onto the scene as an Australian girl singing country music? More than 30 years since she reached iconic status when she was paired with John Travolta in “Grease”?
Yes, time marches on and — believe it or not — Olivia Newton-John is now 64. But I’m happy to report that she is still strikingly beautiful, her voice is still golden, and she is still a charismatic presence on stage. A sellout crowd discovered that, too, at American Music Theatre in Lancaster County Friday night, when Olivia and a seven-piece band dazzled during a 90-minute-plus concert.
One of the few singers to reign atop the music world in more than one genre — country music in the early ’70s, pop music
in the late ’70s and ’80s, even scoring big at the end of the disco era with 1981’s “Physical” — Olivia performed 23 songs Friday, touching on every era, including her 2006 CD “Grace and Gratitude,” inspired by her victory over breast cancer 20 years ago.
The age-defying Olivia walked on to the stage, trim and energetic, wearing black pants, white shirt, black sequined jacket and a necktie. Her opening song was a surprise; usually, performers will open a concert with a fast, up-tempo number to get the crowd pumped up. Instead, Olivia opened with a slow, introspective — yet beautiful — song, “Pearls on a Chain,” from her 2006 album.
Her next song quickly got everyone into familiar territory, the 1975 chart-topper, “Have You Ever Been
Mellow?” Olivia was full of surprises in the early moments of the show, because she and the band followed with a rocking version of the George Harrison hit “What is Life?”
That was followed by “Sam” (1976) and three major hits from the “Xanadu” soundtrack in 1980, “Xanadu,” “Magic” and “Suddenly.” She told the audience that dancing with Gene Kelly in that film was one of the biggest thrills of her career.
For “Suddenly,” backup singer Steve Real did a great job with the male part of the duet, originally performed by Cliff Richard.
The next segment of the show featured Olivia’s country roots. Sitting on stools at center stage, Olivia performed an acoustic medley of her country hits with guitarist Andy Timmons and bassist Matt McKenzie. They earned an ovation with their shortened versions of “If Not For You,” her first hit in 1971, “Let Me Be There,” “Please Mr. Please,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Jolene” and “If You Love Me, Let Me Know.”
The bandmates stayed in acoustic mode for the next number: the lyrics were familiar to the crowd, but the tempo was all wrong. Olivia stopped abruptly and playfully asked the audience, “Do you know this song?” She then turned to her bandmates and proclaimed, “I want to do it the old way!” Timmons grabbed his electric guitar and the band did a rocking version of the No. 1 hit, “Physical.”
Afterwards, Olivia reflected on the initial reaction to the song — boosted immeasurably by an MTV video of her working out in tights — 30 years ago.
“That song was banned, at first,” she said, adding with a laugh, “and I’m proud of it.”
Olivia followed with “Suspended in Time” and “Make a Move on Me.”
In a poignant moment, she discussed her battle with breast cancer 20 years ago and encouraged audience members who are cancer patients or have a friend with cancer to fight and never give up hope. As a tribute to anyone touched by cancer, she sang “Not Gonna Give Into It.”
The show rolled into the homestretch with — what else? — the mega-hits from “Grease,” which, 35 years after its release, still ranks as the top movie musical of all time. Olivia and the band performed rousing versions of “You’re the One That I Want,” “Hopelessly Devoted To You,” “Summer Nights” and “We Go Together.”
She followed with the cover of her 2006 album “Grace and Gratitude.” She introduced her encore number as a thank-you to her fans and proceeded to sing the 1974 smash hit “I Honestly Love You.”
And the fans loved her back.