Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Boy from Oz
The good news is that the Australian-born Mr. Allen (born Peter Woolnough, of Tenterfield, New South Wales) wrote enough very good songs to fill out most of a two and a half hour musical about his life, and most of them pop up unexpectedly, lifting the musical again and again. This new production also has racks and racks of great costumes, as usual, by the dazzling Brad Musgrove, who probably worked (in a past life) as a draper at MGM in the 1950s. The combined effect of sight and sound is almost like having the "old Hollywood" producer Arthur Freed offer you a tray full of coke and poppers, though our pulse rarely quickens in this viewing. Mr. Allen's songs were organized into the story of his life by librettists Martin Sherman and Nick Enright, premiering in Australia in 1998, eventually reaching Broadway in 2003.
But the whole thing falls apart in the final 30 minutes, owing to Mr. Allen's non-committal offstage personality and that of his ex-wife Liza Minnelli. Their dispassionate backstage attitudes, along with the brash "goodtime Charlie" songs sung in cabarets and concerts, absolve the audience of caring at all what happens when the end comes for him, on June 18, 1992: handsomely dying of AIDS back at his childhood home in Tenterfield. Till then, his (and Liza's) bland flippancy just seems like an imitation of sophistication without all the levels of worldliness and understanding that ought to come with it.
It's a secluded walk down death row for Peter, until an absurdly over-dressed (but surprisingly not very electric) chorus takes us to a musical version of Rio de Janeiro in a tasteless and bizarre curtain call after his parting: Mr. Allen's big tropical dance song "I Go to Rio" goes on and on, the stage filled with dancers in blindingly white costumes, leaving us to sit in stunned silence, thinking of Mr. Allen's glossed-over demise and all the young men who died, usually fearful and emaciated, in quiet hospital rooms across this country in the 1980s and '90s. Life was not always a cabaret, old chum.
But, really, a lot of the songs are terrific, and David Elder is lithe and raffish as Peter Allen, a sort of emcee proudly leading us through the slick snapshot moments of Mr. Allen's forty-eight years in this world, including a father he barely knew and a series of lovers who barely knew him. Michele Ragusa is an above-average Judy Garland, but Caitlyn Caughell vastly underplays her Liza Minnelli. That said, both women quietly maintain their plausibility throughout, under the direction of Michael Hamilton. The two actresses save their characters' well-known mannerisms for the public view, singing and acting much more simply in their private (and pivotal) moments behind the scenes. They are alive in the light, and merely part of the scurrying backstage team in the wings, like a lot of true performers.
In this case it seems intentional, and to barely know any of them is to know them well. Josef Stalin infamously said that one death is a tragedy and a million deaths merely a statistic. It's the other way around in the superficial disco age for these famous show people: to be loved by a million people is the make-or-break source of life for each; and to be loved by just one person must remain a statistical blur, as it inevitably carries the weight of some yet-to-be-discovered, soul-destroying tragedy. In The Boy from Oz, it's safer to be a showman. Too bad they never fight about ityou'd have a better play.
Corrine Melançon is excellent as Peter's mother, though the show's most dramatic revelation comes not at all from the AIDS diagnosis that will kill him, but near the end when she sings "Don't Cry Out Loud," explaining her stoic reserve and how to disguise sadness in the company of others. We in the audience gasp to realize her remoteness is likewise a great way to attract addictive personalities, just as Peter will eventually draw the interest of Judy and Liza. With that in mind, Steve Isom casts a long shadow as Allen's alcoholic father, but lightens considerably in other scenes as one of the show's most reliable comic actors (Peter's agent in New York). And Zach Trimmer does nicely as the big, strong boyfriend the singer finally lands, after some unusually sleazy (but well-done) party scenes, considering it's at the historically "safe" Stages St. Louis.
The Boy from Oz, through June 30, 2019, at Stages St. Louis, Robert G. Reim theatre, 111 South Geyer Rd., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.stagesstlouis.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association