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The Boy From Oz

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Originally published on on 10/29/2003

How can one describe Hugh Jackman (this year’s Antonio Banderas), that rare phenomenon, a famous film actor transformed into a true Broadway star? A matinee (and evening) idol, when he changes shirts onstage the balcony audibly swoons. By show’s end everybody does. He flits, he flies, he swoops, he soars, he shimmies, and, best of all, he SINGS, DANCES and ACTS!

Although Australian born songwriter/performer Peter Allen’s life ended at the young age of 48 from AIDS, his life was jam packed with excitement, most of which is covered in this fast moving bio-musical by the late Nick Enright (who died in March of this year) and Martin Sherman. Pop music doesn’t really work onstage and, in a good score, you can’t just arbitrarily assign songs out of context to different characters. Nevertheless, the numbers by Peter Allen “and others” (you have to carefully read the program to find “Music Consultant” Carole Bayer Sager, with whom Allen co-wrote his biggest hits for ten years, and even more scrutiny is required to find the actual song credits buried at the end of the listings in very small type), are neatly squeezed into the script to define his journey from eccentric/talented, ambitious son of a supportive mom (Beth Fowler) and an abusive, alcoholic father (Michael Mulheren, later to appear in a much snazzier role as Allen’ ;s agent) in a small town in Australia, through his serendipitous meeting with Judy Garland in Japan (while singing “Waltzing Matilda” in Japanese) to his brief marriage to her daughter Liza Minnelli, despite already experiencing his homosexuality, through his ultimate, if brief, stardom and tragic early demise.

There is a difference between imitate and emulate. Having the performers not only look and speak like beloved icons, but attempt to sing in their voices is dangerous territory. Yet, with the vagueness of amplification and from a certain distance, the actresses portraying Liza and Judy were dead ringers (oops, shouldn’t say that) both physically and vocally. Jackman, however, is not really like Allen, except in his charm and buoyant energy. He is much better looking and sexier and Allen’s self centered persona, although scripted and generally known, is not evident in the warmth Jackman radiates. But the qualities, the drive, the obvious talent are there in Jackman’s often electrifying performance. Even at the piano, as Allen was, he can find every possible way to use it as a springboard, copying Allen’s signature moves expertly.

The show stops and starts in little bursts of energy in Act I. Heavy on exposition, it dashes through the events shaping Allen’s life opening with “The Lives of Me”, seemingly written for this show. We meet young Peter played to astonishing perfection by a power packed bundle of a boy (eleven year old Mitchel David Federan) in “When I Get My Name In Lights”. A rather weak ballad, “All I Wanted Was The Dream”, is sung by Isabel Keating whose resemblance to Garland caused an audible intake of breath from the audience. In addition, Stephanie Block, as Liza, admirably captured her movement. Judy’s “Only An Older woman” (From Legs Diamond) was savvy and Liza and Peter’s love song “Come and Save Me” soared. Act I includes two homage’s to these show biz divas: “She Loves the Hear the Music” and “Quite Please, There’s a Lady on the Stage” and concludes when Allen returns home after splitting with Liza, indicating he’s “Not the Boy Next Door” thus propelling us into the career oriented second act.

Act II takes off like a horse out of the gate. A meeting with his agent and boyfriend (Jarrod Emick) discussing his act at the Copa (“it wouldn’t hurt to mention Liza because, if the women in the audience know he shtupped at least one girl, maybe there’s hope for them”) in “Sure Thing Baby” builds into the act itself then surges through his astonishingly successful career: a sold out concert in Carnegie Hall (“the audience was all in beautiful gowns, sequins and beads,,,the women dressed well, too), the beach house he bought after Sinatra and Olivia Newton John recorded his songs, his Oscar for the theme for “Arthur”, a one man show on Broadway.

One of the cleverest ever production numbers on Broadway features one of Allen’s biggest hits, “Everything Old is New Again” evoking his Radio City performance (“I always wanted to be a Rockette. It was either that or the Marines”). In choreographer Joey McKneely’s brilliant chorus line tease he first offers only a cut-out of two Rockettes, which opens to an entire chorus line of cut-outs, then, with mirrors, he tantalizingly brings out the real girls as Allen gleefully joins them in a rousing show stopper! It is also the first chance for costumer William Ivey Long, who exhibited remarkable restraint up till now (resisting the urge to clothe Allen, Hawaiian shirts aside, as he often appeared, as flamboyant as Liberace), to finally show off.

The show gracefully winds down with a tender scene as Greg succumbs to AIDS, (” I Honestly Love You”), a farewell song with Liza, “You and Me”, and Allen’s return to Australia with his inspiring anthem ” I Still Call Australia Home”. The script offers a sensitive and revealing account of the relationship between Minnelli and Allen.

If his life is represented in his music, and there are references to Allen’ ;s emotional superficiality, there is a sameness to this pop score that even Michael Gibson’s orchestrations, with an expanded string and diminished brass section, cannot obscure. Under the Patrick Vaccariello’s baton tempi seem to range between upbeat and manic. Of the twenty-four songs (plus reprises) only four are ballads and they are appropriately sung by/to the women in his life, Judy, Liza, his mom, and boyfriend, Greg) after he dies of AIDS. But, if one mines through the shouting and the amplification, the lyrics convey the message even if the music doesn’t, a sort of self-consciousness that Allen may have felt in expressing himself. ” Don’t Cry Out Loud”, sung by his mom to him in the show just before he dies, is his way of capturing the old show biz “the show must go on” kind of emotion-concealing bravado.

But never fear, the show, as irrepressible as Allen himself, delivers an eleventh hour number, and the song everyone is waiting for, “I Go To Rio”, borrows every show biz cliché, a staircase that lights up, chorus girls in huge headdresses, come down, and Jackman, heretofore often tethered to a piano, finally explodes onstage like an exultant puppy let off the leash in this bonanza of a finale. Truly irresistible!

Imperial Theater, 249 West 45 Street, 212 307-4100

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