When The Boy from Oz opened in Sydney in 1998 and became a smash hit, potential Broadway backers said, "Of course Australians would love a musical about Peter Allen -- heís the local boy made good -- but why would Americans want to see this show?" It was only when Hugh Jackman, whoíd become a stage star doing
Oklahoma* in London and a movie star playing Wolverine in
X-Men, agreed to take the leading role that The Boy from
Oz became viable as a Broadway vehicle.
Itís true that Peter Allen was less of a superstar in this country than a cult figure, but he had plenty of hard-core fans, especially in New York, where he broke through as a cabaret performer at the legendary club Reno Sweeney in the late Ď70s and moved up to a solo Broadway turn and sold-out engagements at Radio City Music Hall. And he was legitimately revered for two things. He was an excellent if limited composer, whose best songs dealt honestly with the adult struggle to balance cynical guardedness with real feeling. And he was a phenomenal showman whose flamboyant out-gay persona combined the vaudevillean bravura of Fred Astaire and Al Jolson with a burlesque bawdiness learned from closely observing Bette Midler (with whom he toured) and Frances Faye (the outrageous lesbian saloon singer Bruce Weber immortalized in his documentary
Strangely, The Boy from Oz barely registers the essentials of Allenís artistry. Instead, it arranges the
People-magazine details of his life into a generic show-biz musical: small-town childhood, regional success, discovery, marriage, divorce, struggle, success, love, loss. This over-familiar narrative is presumably meant to appease audiences who never heard of Peter Allen. While admirably blithe about his bisexuality, the book scenes (originally by Nick Enright, who died of AIDS this year, and rewritten by Martin Sherman, author of
Bent) are so shallow itís hard to care about the characters. Yes, heís discovered in a Hong Kong lounge by Judy Garland (a spooky impersonation by Isabel Keating), and yes, he sleeps with her husband and marries her daughter Liza Minnelli (bland Stephanie J. Block), and yes, he falls in love with a man named Greg Connell (the talented but wasted Jarrod Emick) who then dies of AIDS. But the work of fleshing out these relationships is left to Allenís songs, which werenít written for that purpose.
The people who will be most satisfied with The Boy from Oz are those who canít get enough of Hugh Jackman. Heís likeable in his lanky, fresh-faced Tommy Tune way, although heís asked to stand and deliver some cabaret ballads as if they were Broadway showstoppers, which flatters neither the songs nor Jackmanís pleasant but indistinctive voice. And heís slightly outshone in the adorability department by 11-year-old Mitchel David Federan, who plays the chubby, tap-dancing, butt-wagging Young Peter, underscoring the show-biz maxim about sharing the stage with kids and animals.
The musicalís creators include some of Allenís better songs -- "Quiet Please, Thereís a Lady On Stage" (his eulogy for Garland), "Iíd Rather Leave While Iím in Love" (sung by Liza), and "I Honestly Love You" (which Greg croons from beyond the grave) -- and leave out many others, meanwhile cramming in a bunch of lesser tunes from Allenís own generic show-biz musical that flopped on Broadway in 1988. Have we learned nothing from
Legs Diamond? At least when Allen dies, he goes to Rio, which sends the audience out the door on a big glitzy high. So there is some justice in the other world.
An edited version of this review appeared in The Advocate,
November 25, 2003