The Boy From Oz Book by Martin Sherman. Original book by Nick Enright. Music and lyrics by Peter Allen. Directed by Philip Wm. McKinley. Choreography by Joey McKneely. Scenic design by Robin Wagner. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Donald Holder. Sound design by Acme Sound Partners. Orchestrations by Michael Gibson. Music director Patrick Vaccariello. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Stephanie J. Block, Beth Fowler, Isabel Keating, Jarrod Emick, Mitchel David Federan, Michael Mulheren.
Once upon a time, the greatest hope of an abundantly talented Broadway star was to have a show written just for him, one tailored to his unique gifts. Great jokes, great songs, a scorching 11 o'clock number to bring down the house... All of those things could combine, for just a couple of hours, to make the star look like the most talented man in the world.
Those days are gone now, and I offer up The Boy From Oz as proof that the dazzling star vehicle of yesteryear is deader than... well, The Boy From Oz. While pretending to celebrate pop icon Peter Allen and the wonderful star playing him, Hugh Jackman, the show succeeds at doing little more than paying tribute to the accepted mediocrity so prevalent on today's Broadway stages.
Accordingly, there's very little original about The Boy From Oz. It's a typical show-biz bio story, with the twist that it starts in Australia and moves to New York. It chronicles Allen's relationships and eventual death from AIDS, all while smiling, dancing and singing songs you've known for years. There's almost nothing here you haven't seen before.
Except, that is, for Jackman. He dances and sings up a storm, mimicking Allen's flamboyant gestures, hip swivels, vocal inflections, and impromptu-appearing dance steps with vivid, piquant precision. He's got a mammoth singing and dancing load, which he carries with the same effortless zeal as he does his easygoing manner and ingratiating grin. If he never makes you forget Allen, he is every bit a superstar, and that's good enough.
But the show he's landed in is so listless and languid, even his infectious energy and powerful voice can't rescue the evening. If not the worst of the cobbled-together songwriter showcase musicals, The Boy From Oz certainly must be the dullest yet. Its book (by Martin Sherman, who adapted the work of the late Nick Enright) is better than Mamma Mia!'s, but what show's isn't? Without a point of view, without a goal, and without ideas, invention, or even sense, Sherman's attempts at writing feel unformed and ineffective from beginning to end.
For all the character development granted everyone but Allen, The Boy From Oz may as well be a Peter Allen revue (it's pretty close as it is). Sherman can't find the inclination to make Liza Minnelli (Allen's short-term wife) or Judy Garland (who discovered Allen in Hong Kong and inspired him for years) seem anything but phantoms; Allen's character is the only one fully drawn, and then that's mostly because of Jackman's overtime work in his role. Sherman just never understands that trying to establish characters with songs not written for those characters will never really work; how can the results be anything but dramatically untrue? Oh, he comes close a couple of times - when Mitchel David Federan, blithely tapping and belting in "When I Get My Name In Lights" kicks off Allen's life with a dazzling bang, or when Allen assumes stardom singing an increasingly raucous "Quiet Please, There's a Lady Onstage" after Garland's death - but most of his work is not sound theatrical thinking.
Compounding this problem is director Philip Wm. McKinley, who makes few real attempts to wrangle this into a slick dramatic presentation. But, who can blame him? Liza Minnelli doing a star-making turn with the relatively dour "She Loves to Hear the Music" is an uphill battle to begin with, and an unenticing portrayal by Stephanie J. Block, lacking all of Minnelli's vulnerability and flair, complicates matters. Faced with no stage full of glamorous Rockettes for Allen's Radio City Music Hall engagement, McKinley makes sure that moment feels underpowered instead of triumphant, too.
But everyone - McKinley included - is a victim here; can this material really be made to work at all? Joey McKneely's choreography only occasionally excites, Robin Wagner's set is depressingly minimalist, William Ivey Long's costumes are dazzlingly pedestrian, and Donald Holder's lights are functional. Similar things could be said of most of the performances: Isabel Keating's Garland is caricaturish, but she's a fine vocal match; Michael Mulheren gets the show's most decent laughs as Allen's agent; and Beth Fowler, as Allen's mother, is underused until the last scene, when she gets to sing, for perfunctory reasons, one of Allen's best-known tunes, "Don't Cry Out Loud." Jarrod Emick is saddled with the show's most thankless and poorly defined role as Allen's second-act lover, but he handles it with as much dignity as he can muster. At least under Patrick Vaccariello's experienced baton the music adds some gravitas to the evening.
Does any of this matter? Not really. Jackman is the heart and soul of The Boy From Oz, and it will certainly run as long as he wants it to. While he's at the center of it - which he almost always is, performing in no fewer than 20 of the show's musical numbers - you can't take your eyes off of him. That makes sense, in a way - he's also the only thing keeping them open.