Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 10, 2011
Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway Direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle. Music direction by Patrick Vaccariello. Scenic consultant John Lee Beatty. Costume design by Willina Ivey Long. Lighting design by Ken Billington. Sound design by John Shivers. Video design by Alexander V. Nichols. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Robin Campbell, Kearran Giovanni, Anne Otto, Lara Seibert, Hilary Michael Thompson, Emily Tyra.
Assuming they can nab a ticket, that is — and for this engagement, which is playing at the Broadhurst only through January 1, that won't be easy. (Or inexpensive.) The good news is that, if you get your hands on one, this is hardly a bargain-basement affair designed to cheaply capitalize on the mega-star singing and dancing at its center. Certainly no event such as this one needs a supporting cast of six (gorgeous) chorus girls, let alone a 18-piece orchestra (under the dynamic baton of Patrick Vaccariello), and at one point a cameo appearance by an Australian aboriginal quartet. Jackman alone onstage with a single pianist would have no trouble selling out for 10 weeks. What's immediately and consistently clear is that Jackman, Vaccariello, and director-choreographer Warren Carlyle care only about putting on, as they used to say, a hell of a show.
And do they ever succeed. But how could they not with Jackman? He's that ridiculously rare quantity: a performer with the guts and raw talent necessary to be equally at home in the highest echelons of both film and theatre. He flashed his stage chops in both his native Australia and London before stepping foot on the boards in the U.S., but when he did — with The Boy From Oz in 2003 — the hype proved justified. Not only could he croon and prance through the mammoth role of Peter Allen eight times a week for a year, but he could also transform a middling-to-poor outing into an electrifying evening you knew you'd tell your grandchildren about. Even many of today's dedicated stage names have trouble with that.
But Jackman made it look effortless then, and he doesn't seem to be straining any more now. In fact, the lengthy tribute to Allen in Act II of Back on Broadway is, if anything, even more exciting and affecting, because the relationship Jackman fosters with the audience is cultivated rather than squelched. You feel the depth of his humanity in numbers like "Best That You Can Do," "Don't Cry Out Loud," and "Tenterfield Saddler" just as powerfully as you do his good-time-seeking nature in "I Go to Rio" or in the exultant movie medley of classics like "Singing in the Rain" and "Sing Sing Sing" that follows.
All this works because Jackman spends the first act establishing and developing his rapport with the audience. This takes several forms: encouraging everyone to snap their fingers as the background rhythm to "Fever," setting so many female hearts aflutter when he descends into the audience to josh with those in the front rows that you can practically hear them, building up the expectation for his initial entrance by singing the opening lines of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" offstage in the grand Oklahoma! tradition.
Jackman's show-biz reminiscences comprise a full replication of his "I Won't Dance" montage from the 2005 Tony Awards broadcast, ironically cataloging the dewy-eyed moments of his movie career with "L.O.V.E.," and telling a particularly touching story about his father making a rare visit to New York to see his son in the 2002 Carousel concert at Carnegie Hall — which Jackman then follows up with an unexpurgated version of that show's epic "Soliloquy" (sounding even better now, may I add, than he did at that performance).
This isn't to say that every choice made for the show is perfect. John Lee Beatty's vague scenic setup emanates a borderline cheesy 60s variety-show vibe; and William Ivey Long's costumes and Ken Billington's lights, though fine, are nothing special. And some musical decisions are head-scratchers. Jackman doing a one-man "Rock Island" — yes, that one, from The Music Man — to chronicle his first-ever audition for a high-school play is almost surreal, even if it's factually accurate. And "Over the Rainbow" sounds a bit bizarre when used as a background ditty to provide extra atmosphere for what amounts to a travelogue of the Outback (this is where that visiting Australian ensemble comes in, by the way).
In this case, however, these are pointless nitpicks, because Jackman makes everything — everything — work. The force of his smile, which always looks rooted to the same core of slyness you see behind eyes; his suave, purposeful dancing; and a deceptively strong yet decidedly natural singing voice that transforms even the most soaring musical phrases into intimate conversation. He's as at home in jazz and swing as in traditional musical theatre. He's a masterful improv artist. He's a crack storyteller. His comic timing could not be better. If there's anything Jackman cannot do, his show offers no clue as to what it may be.
Isn't that exactly what a star should do: convince you that, while you're in his presence, no one else on Earth matters? The cool and confidence Jackman projects his every second onstage are inspiring — or rather, they would be if he ever called attention to them. But no: He makes two solid hours of what must be exhausting work look like something he dashes off two or three times before breakfast on a daily basis. Of the myriad gifts Jackman displays in Back on Broadway, this is his most developed, and the one that makes the strongest impression.
So strong, in fact, that it's hard not to leave the theatre depressed at the prospect that he might wait another seven years before returning to Broadway in a musical. True, his career will continue to flourish regardless. But New York theatre is much more energetic and exciting when Jackman is a living, breathing, and radiant part of it.