Reviewed by Marc Wheeler
The life of Peter Allen takes center stage in The Boy From Oz, the Australian-turned-Broadway hit now getting an ambitious 51-seat West Coast premiere at Celebration Theatre under the direction of Michael A. Shepperd.
Who’s Peter Allen?
That’s what I asked when I first heard of this musical. (It’s also what I asked at intermission, but we’ll get to that). The Boy From Oz — book by Martin Sherman, original book by Nick Enright — seeks to answer that question in its sweeping journey from the 1940s-1990s. Briefly, Allen was an award-winning, Australian singer-songwriter who found international success performing in stage shows large and small, from his humble beginnings in pubs and cabarets, to Radio City and the Sydney Opera House. His songs were performed by Olivia Newton-John, Melissa Manchester, Frank Sinatra and others. And it was through a chance encounter with Judy Garland that he met and married her daughter Liza Minnelli before divorcing and coming out as gay.
Ohhh, THAT Peter Allen!
It’s no wonder Celebration — LA’s historic LGBT theater — gravitated toward this show. Their current home at The Lex, however, poses significant challenges in mounting a big Broadway musical. But as they demonstrated a few years back with their wildly successful, small-stage production of The Color Purple, they’re more than crafty at fitting large pieces in intimate spaces.
Which transitions me ever-so-winkingly to the production’s celebrated sexuality. Shepperd knows his audience, and eye candy — for any persuasion — is assured. The show’s intimacy is tender (especially its depictions of Allen’s later years romance), and blatant sexuality — albeit brief — is surprisingly edgy in an otherwise kid-friendly production. The Stonewall Riots are also dramatized (kudos to Eric Snodgrass’s smashing sound design) giving poignancy to sexual awakening.
Peter Allen’s played by fellow Australian Andrew Bongiorno, whose smile is as pleasant as the vocals emerging from it. And yet for all of Act One, even during Allen’s more vulnerable moments, I couldn’t see beyond his saccharine-sweet persona. I thought, Is this it? Is this Peter Allen? And if so, why did they make a musical about him?
Is Bongiorno missing something?
I decided to go with Am I? and sat back in my seat. And as Act Two began I realized Shepperd knew exactly what he was doing all along. If Act One is Allen’s caterpillar, Act Two is his butterfly. And boy does he.
Self-love and acceptance do wonders for the soul, and Allen’s spirit flies high and proud, storm clouds be damned. And there are storm clouds. And there is an end — one tied beautifully to “long-ago” Allen, played with an indomitable spirit by Michayla Brown. Her casting is truly inspiring, proving that a young Asian girl can play the childhood version of a white Australian man — this being theater after all.
Kelly Lester is outstanding as Allen’s mother whose support and love rival her constant worries. Her heartbreaking anthem, Don’t Cry Out Loud not only informs the story, it dares the audience, such power consumes her rendition.
Jessica Pennington is the spitting image of Liza Minnelli, thanks in large part to Michael Mullen’s (across-the-board) glorious costuming, Byron Batista’s hair and wig design and, alas, genetics. While vocally she’s not a dead-ringer, she’s within range. She shines brightest when Liza stands tallest, as in She Loves to Hear the Music where Liza claims her power and Pennington shows off hers.
And then there’s Bess Motta as Judy Garland. Make that, Bess Motta is Judy Garland. Her vibrato, gestures. Her throwing the mike cord over her shoulder just so. All of it: Judy. In serenades she takes the audience with her, transporting us back in time. Those who were there can relive their memories, and those who weren’t can swear they were. Power, insecurity and ferocity permeate this performance. Garland’s time in Oz is, like her life, too brief, but ohhh does Motta make the most of it, for all of us.
A strong, multi-racial ensemble rounds out the cast. And one couldn’t ask for a more perfect “descending staircase” in actors’ heights for staging aesthetics.
I was sure The Boy From Oz was a mix of songwriters, Allen making up about half the songs. But no: music and lyrics, they’re all his (including those co-written with Carole Bayer Sager, Burt Bacharach, etc). Notably, Best That You Can Do, Quiet Please, There’s a Lady On Stage, I Honestly Love You, Don’t Cry Out Loud and I Go to Rio are familiar hits that may inspire a few I didn’t know he wrote that! remarks. But mixed in with these bygone pop songs are some less successful “stage tunes.” None that bad, fortunately, they’re just not all dandies. That being said, a four-piece band under the musical direction of Bryan Blaskie gives this jukebox musical the sound it deserves.
Janet Roston’s choreography is fantastic. Whether bringing cutesy-silliness to the Love Crazy ensemble routine, Fosse-esque moves to a Liza number, or orgiastic simulations to Continental American, her range is broad and execution sharp.
Celebration Theatre’s The Boy From Oz is a strong example of what can happen under L.A.’s 99-Seat Plan. Not only is it an outside-the-box choice considering its venue size, it’s slick, polished and inventive (risk-taking being an encouraged component of the Plan.) Granted, I find its song selection mixed, and Act One — at least in this staging — had me feeling rather unsure, but by the end I was completely won over. This is, in large part, a wonderful production celebrating — as only Celebration can — the life of a man who learned not to keep it inside.
2 hrs and 20 mins. One intermission.