When megastar Hugh Jackman announced he was bringing the hit Australian musical The Boy From Oz to Broadway so that he could play songwriter-performer Peter Allen, there was some head-scratching on The Great White Way. Known marginally in the U.S. as the husband of Liza Minnelli and the co-writer of a handful of mostly mediocre songs, Allen didn’t really seem a likely subject for a bi-sical (my completely made-up word for “biographical musical”). Jackman’s performance, however, garnered him a Tony Award and the show was able to recoup its investment because of his involvement.
Ten years later, Uptown Players is presenting the regional premiere of the Jackman vehicle, starring local wunderkind Alex Ross. And while there may be some more head-scratching as to why this show and why now, the musical fits quite neatly into Uptown’s mission statement: the bi-sexual Allen was famous for his flamboyant costumes and stage presence.
The Boy From Oz is basically a musical that hinges on three impressions: Allen, Judy Garland and her daughter Liza. Director Cheryl Denson has assembled a trio of immensely talented performers who are sublimely up to the task.
Hugh Jackman was everywhere during the Broadway run, performing numbers from the show on every morning and late-night program imaginable. Having seen him perform as Allen more often than I’ve ever seen Allen himself, it’s hard for me to separate his interpretation from the real Peter Allen. So it’s difficult to tell if Alex Ross is doing a really good impression of the singer or the actor who most famously portrayed the singer. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter. Ross has charisma to spare and has the audience firmly in the palm of his hand long before intermission.
Sarah Elizabeth Smith is so spot-on as Liza that—halfway through the first act—I actually second-guessed my knowledge that she was playing the part. The actress mimics Minnelli's vocal inflections, her lines are punctuated in fits and starts and she has a voice that nearly blows the roof of the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
The biggest accomplishment in impersonation, however, is Janelle Lutz’s Judy Garland. Lutz, who recently played a British socialite in Uptown’s Soho Cinders, practically disappears into the post-Over-The-Rainbow Garland. She manages to age herself a good twenty years, at least, and her world-weary existence will make you want another drink as badly as she does.
The rest of the cast is top-notch, as well. Young Peter is played by the talented Westin Brown, a tap-dancing whirl of adorable. Jodi Wright does the best she can with a role that’s underwritten and only seems to show up to tell Peter to buck up and stay the course. Thomas Renner and Kyle Montgomery play the men in Allen’s life, and there were audible expressions of joy from Uptown’s decidedly…well, Uptown…audience whenever they were onstage.
Uptown Players has really made a home for itself at the Kalita Humphreys, staging everything from the lavish Mel Brooks showstopper, The Producers, to this season’s beautiful Tony Winner, Vanya and Masha and Sonia and Spike. Their set designs usually rival any other theater in town, but Rodney Dobbs’ set for The Boy From Oz is spare, stark and sometimes underwhelming. The same cannot be said for Suzi Cranford’s costumes and Coy Covington’s hair and wig designs. The gaudy stage show opulence of the 70s is perfectly displayed, from Liza’s pantsuits to Allen’s Hawaiian shirts (tied up in a knot, naturally).
The Boy From Oz could just be a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing, if it weren’t for the performances of its cast. Director Denson has staged the show at a brisk pace, and Ross’s charm takes you all the way through to Rio. So what if “I Honestly Love You” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud” are shoehorned into this jukebox musical about a second-rate lounge performer; you’re in good hands with this cast and crew.
The Boy From Oz, presented by Uptown Players, plays through August 17th at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. Visit www.uptownplayers.org for tickets and more information.