The Boy From Oz
Review by Neal Weaver
Celebration Theatre at the Lex
Extended through July 31
We expect lots of glitz and glamor In The Boy From Oz, a musical based on the life and works of Australian songwriter and performer extraordinaire, Peter Allen. After all, it was a big splashy Broadway show, with a book by Martin Sherman (based on an original script by Nick Enright) and a huge cornucopia of songs by Allen himself. And we get plenty of both, thanks in part to Michael Mullen’s spectacular costumes. What one doesn’t expect, if one has no previous knowledge of the show, is its insight and the depth of its emotional resonance.
When Allen (played in this production by Andrew Bongiorno) first appeared on the NYC scene, it was hard to take him seriously. All we knew about him was that he was probably gay, a protégé of Judy Garland, and would soon marry Liza Minelli. He seemed little more than a gigolo. But he soon revealed his talents as a cabaret performer and songwriter, and went on to international stardom.
We first see him as a star-struck 9-year-old (Michayla Brown) in the small Outback town where he grew up, bullied by his bitter father (Michael Taylor Gray) and cherished by his loving and ever-loyal mother (Kelly Lester).
Later, he teams up with his friend Chris (Marcus S. Daniel) to create an act billed as the Allen Brothers. They achieve modest success in Australia, till Peter attracts inconvenient notoriety due to a scandalous homosexual affair, and they find it advisable to seek employment in Hong Kong. There, by chance, their act is seen by Judy Garland (Bess Motta), who recognizes Peter’s talent and takes him on as an opening act for her show.
When he meets Judy’s daughter, Liza Minnelli (Jessica Pennington), and defends her from Judy’s bullying, they hit it off, and are soon married. The marriage is stormy, however, because her career is taking off and his seems to be stuck. And though he seems to genuinely love her, he is, of course, gay, a fact brought home to Liza when she finds him in flagrante delicto with another man. After three years, following Judy’s death and the Stonewall Rebellion which it partially inspired, they’re divorced, although somehow they hold onto the bittersweet remains of their friendship.
A new manager (Gray) and a new lover, Greg (Michael Mittman) join forces to get him booked into the Copacabana, and his career as a cabaret singer is launched. He goes from triumph to triumph till it becomes apparent that Greg is dying of AIDS. The same affliction carries Peter off in 1992.
Allen’s story is in many ways a grim tale, and on the face of it unlikely material for a musical comedy. But it’s enlivened by plenty of comedy, rich characters, solid performances, and of course all those Peter Allen songs. It may be an emotional roller-coaster, but Allen’s indomitable spirit shines through and the show ends in a gorgeously joyful finale.
Director Michael A. Shepperd has cast the show impeccably, and deftly blends the touching human story with the show business razzmatazz. As Peter, Bongiorno splendidly masters the role’s huge demands, from tap-dancing and singing “Waltzing Matilda” in Chinese to belting out a huge array of songs, dancing in a kick-line with the Rockettes, and playing out emotionally demanding scenes. Kelly Lester as Peter’s mother is tactfully self-effacing for most the show, then gets her chance to shine just before the end. As Judy and Liza, Motta and Pennington go far beyond celebrity impersonation, creating solid characters and emphasizing their insecurities and vulnerability as well as their show biz strength and brass. And they’re a believable mother-daughter team. Michael Mittman provides a wonderfully persuasive performance, with very few scenes, as Peter’s last and most important lover.
The principals are backed up by a fine and versatile ensemble, including Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Chelsea Martin, Nathan Mohebi, and Shanta’ Marie Robinson. Janet Roston provides the stylish choreography, and Bryan Blaskie provides expert musical direction.
Celebration Theatre at the Lex, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m. Extended through July 31. (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com. Running time: Two Hours and 20 minutes with one 10 minute intermission.