The line between star and subject becomes almost invisible in the Australian arena tour of “The Boy From Oz.” When he first performed the role on Broadway in 2003, Hugh Jackman’s charisma, vitality and breezy confidence onstage far outshone the narrative or emotional scope of the by-the-numbers biomusical of singer-songwriter Peter Allen. The scales have been tipped even further toward the performer in this pumped-up reconfiguration of the show, playing state capitals in venues of 10,000 seats or more. It’s as much a concert platform for a returning local boy made good in Hollywood as it is a life story of Peter Allen. And that’s no bad thing.
“The best thing about being an Australian in America is coming home,” says Jackman as Allen. The reciprocal waves of affection between the star and his audience, fueled by an almost incredulous smile as he comes off a Rockettes kickline, or his evident emotion while taking his bows on opening night in Sydney made it clear this mammoth production delivers everything national audiences could want.
A big, brash, shameless Vegas-style spectacle that aims to seduce and entertain while declining to dig deep into its subject seems somehow true to the spirit of Allen even if he does get a little lost in the process. The Australian songsmith achieved his greatest successes penning hits for other people, but he was first and foremost an entertainer, best remembered for shaking his maracas and grinding his hips to the exuberant strains of “I Go to Rio.”
A formative influence in Allen’s career was his mother-in-law, Judy Garland, who admonishes him for his performance skills, saying, “You do the job, but you never show yourself.” If her advice to bare his heart was heeded, the evidence gets muffled here by everything else.
Following the original Australian run in 1997, playwright Martin Sherman was enlisted to rework Nick Enright’s book for Broadway. His script excised remote Australianisms deemed impenetrable to American auds, but patched together a cliched account of Allen’s life, jumping from one episode to the next without much flow or dramatic momentum.
Returning to a modified version of Enright’s book, the story seems only slightly less perfunctory. It recaps Allen’s rise from a sassy kid performing in a regional pub (one of four actors alternating in the role, Shardyn Fahey-Leigh was a delightful unbridled dynamo on opening night) to a showman commanding the stage at Radio City Music Hall.
There are detours into his friendship with Garland, his marriage to Liza Minnelli and his relationship with Texas boyfriend Greg Connell, whose death from AIDS preceded Allen’s own by several years. We get the disarming chutzpah and mischievous humor, thanks in large part to Jackman’s tireless energy and generosity as a performer. But beyond the drive to show auds a good time, there’s only a superficial sense of what made the man tick.
Given the demands of playing such massive houses, the choice of director Kenny Ortega seems dictated primarily by his experience staging lavish concert tours and U.S. Olympic ceremonies. He fails to smooth over the show’s more awkward segues (the lurch from the gentle nostalgia of “Tenterfield Saddler” to the drag-show excess of “I Go to Rio” is especially clumsy), but Ortega puts an assured stamp on some big production numbers.
Most notable among these is “I Still Call Australia Home,” which despite its placement mid-way through act two, is the musical’s de facto finale. Allen’s stirring popular alternative to the national anthem is performed with 100 members of the Australian Girls Choir stationed around the auditorium and a giant Australian flag unfurled over the audience. Also effective is “Everything Old Is New Again,” conjuring Allen’s Radio City triumph with far more razzle-dazzle than the underpopulated number on Broadway.
The new production also improves on more intimate moments. As played by sweet-voiced Murray Bartlett, Connell’s post-death appearance singing “I Honestly Love You,” which seemed mawkishly saccharine in New York, is now quite touching. Likewise Allen’s eulogy for Garland, “Quiet Please There’s a Lady On Stage.”
While some of Ortega and co-choreographer Kelley Abbey’s kitschier extravagances are fun (the disco-era decadence of “Don’t Wish Too Hard”), they tend to clutter the stage with frenetic but often shapeless movement, as in the messy comic number “Only an Older Woman,” with Allen and Garland in tramp costumes.
Returning to the role she originated, Oz-rock icon Chrissy Amphlett of the Divinyls at first seems bizarrely off-kilter as Garland, but she etches a vivid character out of a caricature. Her shaky footing and wobbly delivery are entirely appropriate to a woman who entered Allen’s life after “three breakdowns, four husbands and five overdoses.” One of the best additions here is “Taught by Experts,” in which Judy’s ghost wryly coaxes Allen through his songwriting pains.
It’s no doubt tougher to portray a living legend than a dead one, and with her gushy mannerisms, Angela Toohey’s Liza never quite escapes impersonation, albeit an accurate one vocally and physically. She’s saddled also with some weak numbers, notably “Sure Thing Baby,” which is an odd fit for the flashy Fosse-styled treatment. Like many of the truncated songs conceived not for this context, Toohey’s few bars of “Best That You Can Do” seem tossed in merely as part of a greatest-hits checklist.
As Allen’s unpretentious, country-town mum, ’70s pop diva Colleen Hewett creates a lovely, real character, all but stealing the show with her heartfelt take on “Don’t Cry Out Loud.”
The most powerful element onstage, capable of hitting the back rows of even a vast barn like the Sydney Entertainment Center, is Jackman. The show unfolds like a guided Allen retrospective from beyond the grave, allowing for mentions ranging from Nicole Kidman’s recent wedding to Mel Gibson’s DUI disgrace to self-referential nods to Australians in Hollywood. Those contemporary comments contribute to bounce the focus back and forth between subject and star.
While Jackman is clearly playing a part, mincing and cavorting and flirting up a storm, there are equal parts of his own persona at play with Allen’s. The strong sense of an international star acknowledging his roots, eager to give something back to the country he came from will ensure this show an enthusiastic welcome across Australia.
And if Jackman chooses, as has been speculated, to take the show back to New York and retrace Allen’s steps to Radio City, who’s to stop him?