Hugh Jackman makes it all look easy. Onstage as on film, he exudes warmth and a friendly sexuality. “X-Men” fans may not care, but he sings like a dream, too, and dances with a carefree exuberance. So it’s a measure of the tough task he’s set himself, as the star of “The Boy From Oz,” that by the end of the evening, you feel he’s been pulling grand pianos across the stage with his teeth for a few hours. Jackman is giving a vital and engaging performance in this pitifully flimsy musical almost in spite of the material he’s been handed. It’s a sad waste of an exciting talent.
One of the more highly anticipated shows of the fall season, primarily due to Jackman’s participation, “The Boy From Oz” was a smash in Australia several seasons ago. Down Under, Peter Allen, the biomusical’s subject, was a major name, the hometown boy who made good on the international stage. The singer-songwriter co-wrote and recorded a number of schmaltzy pop hits in the 1970s and ’80s, most of which are better known in somebody else’s version: Olivia Newton-John’s “I Honestly Love You,” Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” the theme from “Arthur.” Stateside, he was not a major figure, although his flashy, flamboyant stage presence brought him an ardent following — bios always breathlessly remind that he sold out several shows running at Radio City Music Hall at the height of his fame. In showbiz shorthand, you might call him an eternal understudy for Barry Manilow.
The producers of the Broadway production presumably sensed that Allen’s relative obscurity as a figure in the public consciousness warranted a wholesale rewrite of the show’s book. Out went the one used in Australia, and the London-based American playwright Martin Sherman (“Bent,” “Rose”) was commissioned to write another. But what’s onstage at the Imperial Theater almost seems to be an outline for a book, not the thing itself. You can practically see the thematic dividers forming on the page: 1. Childhood and youth. a) Alcoholic father, relationship to. b) Supportive mother, warm rapport with. 2. Early success… .
Directed with faceless efficiency by Philip McKinley, the show progresses chronologically through Allen’s story, from his humble roots in a poor Australian town to the glittering showbiz capitals of the U.S., where Allen died of AIDS in 1992. A series of bare-bones scenes advance the story from turning point to turning point with dreary obviousness. As soon as the object of a sequence has been achieved — “I love you, Liza,” “I’m leaving you, Peter,” “I’m gay, mom,” “I’m dying” — it’s on to the next.
We get no sense of an actual life being lived, a personality being formed, or even a public persona being constructed. Judging from what’s depicted here, you might think Allen spent the lion’s share of his adult life changing his Hawaiian shirts. (The hard-working Jackman is onstage almost throughout the show, so most costume changes take place onstage.) When, late in the evening, Allen’s dying boyfriend — introduced about three scenes earlier — accuses him of being “completely self-obsessed,” it comes as news. As seen here, Allen is hardly a rapacious climber, notwithstanding that questionable marriage to Liza Minnelli. He’s mostly just a likable guy to whom good things happen to happen.
Indeed, for long stretches of the first act, Jackman’s Allen seems to be a bystander in his own life, either standing outside it, supplying far too much linking narration and campy commentary (“Can’t we just jump to the glamorous part?”), or looking on as the more celebrated figures whose lives intersected with his, Liza and her mom, get to strut their stuff. (Isabel Keating, who has Judy Garland’s twitchy mannerisms down pat, is a kitschy pleasure.) Even that corny old boilerplate scene, in which a budding talent first gets to win over a crowd, is given not to the adult Peter, which is to say Jackman, but to his younger self, the ferocious little Mitchel David Federan, whose wildly exuberant dancing is so determined to wow us it’s hilarious. (And yes, Mitchel, it does wow us!)
Many a musical has survived book problems, of course, and, line by line, Sherman’s has its share of verbal wit. Biographical stories are always a challenge onstage: Life doesn’t tend to shape itself into neat dramatic arcs. But the musical’s score, some two dozen songs drawn from the Allen songbook, hinders as much as it helps the cause. The songs weren’t written to serve a story or define a specific character, and as they glide by, mostly in lite-FM arrangements, they almost seem to be arranged at random — the bland banality of many of the lyrics could almost suit any emotional occasion. (Most peculiar choice: “I Honestly Love You” being sung by Allen’s dead lover, returning for a visit in ghost form.) Rather perversely, the musical leaves out Allen’s most personal and specifically autobiographical song, “Tenterfield Saddler,” which might just be his loveliest composition, too.
And, sad to say, the show doesn’t even honor the spirit of Allen’s fondness for splashy excess. The big moments look alarmingly skimpy. The most lavish number in act one is a faux-Fosse extravaganza for Liza alone (why?) that comes across as rather tacky. And for Allen’s triumphant turn at Radio City Music Hall, we get a line of fake Rockettes followed by a few real ones flitting around spinning mirrors, desperately attempting to look numerous. The exuberantly cheesy finale, a Ziegfeld-style romp down a big staircase for the entire cast, performed to “I Go to Rio,” comes as too little, too late. Robin Wagner’s sets, primarily large backdrops, assorted furniture and prominently placed pianos, are modest by Broadway standards, and William Ivey Long’s costumes are a sometimes witty, sometimes rote collection of period duds.
Jackman sails through it all with impressive good spirits and high energy, giving his zestful all to everything he’s given to do. He swishes prettily, he flirts outrageously, he shakes his hips with ceaseless vigor. He sings his share of the big, tear-your-heart-out ballads with affecting conviction. The casual delight in performing he radiates comes closer than anything in the show to demonstrating what made Peter Allen tick, and what made his fans take to him so deliriously. He absorbed and transformed the energy his fans brought to him, giving it right back to them festooned with sequins, sass, a smidgen of sex. Jackman does the same, but he’s doing it in an aesthetic vacuum here, struggling to form a real bond with the audience without being given the right tools to do it with.
It’s a measure of the musical’s ineffectiveness that the most spontaneous exclamation of delight, notwithstanding the ovation-on-demand that greets the finale, was a boisterous catcall sent from the balcony when Jackman doffed his shirt and stood topless for a moment, a mischievous, mock-bashful grin on his face. The show doesn’t come close to baring the soul of its subject — the audience has to settle for a glimpse of skin.