Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
As a musical biography of Peter Allen, The Boy From Oz is pathetic. As a star vehicle for Hugh Jackman, however, it's The Boy From Wow! Jackman is on stage for virtually every minute of this two-and-a-half hour show; he even makes some of his costume changes in front of the paying customers. This may well be the smartest direction that Philip Wm. McKinley has provided, because the production needs Jackman's electric presence at almost every turn.

A true triple threat, Jackman acts, sings, and dances with accomplished skill. We don't see that very often on Broadway these days. But the star has got something else besides talent and technique, and it's the element that makes his performance a triumph: charisma. All too often, we've seen stage bios of great stars that have failed because the actors in the title roles don't have star power of their own. Just think of that awful Bobby Darin show at the Theater at Saint Peter's Church earlier this season. There's a lot that's wrong about The Boy From Oz, but one thing that's right about it for sure is the casting of Jackman. Not only does he capture the public appeal of Peter Allen, he's actually a better performer. (Gasp!)

Let's begin with the show's book, which was originally written by Nick Enright and then, presumably, punched up by Martin Sherman. It's a shallow and rudimentary book at best. Artless might be a better way to describe it; the book reveals nothing about its hero except for a bit of advice that his mother gave him and that he obviously took too much to heart ("Don't Cry Out Loud"). Throughout the show, Allen is a cipher. The producers would say, "That's the point. Peter Allen didn't express his feelings except in his music." But a show about the man should provide a stronger subtext so that we know what he's feeling even if the characters around him don't.

As for the music, Allen's creations are delivered Mamma Mia! style, his biography shaped to fit the songs. Sometimes it works, but many of these pop tunes simply have the weight of musical theater songs. Still, if you like Peter Allen's music, you'll find it mostly well served and certainly well sung.

Joey McKneely's choreography is not getting much attention because it's so slyly interwoven into Jackman's performance. There are few big production numbers but there are bits of dance business scattered throughout the show that genuinely enhance the experience. This is not the type of choreography that wins awards, but it is nonetheless effective. Robin Wagner's sets belie the show's reportedly big budget, but Donald Holder's lighting design is stylish and appropriately showy.

Several of the supporting actors are lucky enough to be playing characters that are written decently enough not to obscure their talents. Isabel Keating as Judy Garland gets the show's best lines, and it helps that she's a dead ringer for Judy. Michael Mulheren stands out as Allen's tough-talking manager, Dee Anthony. (He also play's Allen's alcoholic father.) And Beth Fowler portrays Allen's always-understanding mother with great appeal.

Sadly, the two characters that should have the most depth are the most underwritten. Peter Allen's two great loves, Liza Minnelli (Stephanie J. Block) and Greg Connell (Jarrod Emick), have nothing to play. (On the other hand, these are the only two actors who get to kiss Hugh Jackman, so the roles do have their compensations!) Finally, the actor who comes off as the very best in the show -- even better than Jackman -- is Mitchel David Federan, who plays Peter Allen as a child. He has a handful of lines at best, but he's enormously appealing in his exuberant singing and and terrrific dancing. This talented, adorable kid will probably get a Tony nomination; in his own way, he's probably just as irreplaceable as Jackman.

********************

Crystal Gayle
Crystal Gayle
Gayle Force

Crystal Gayle has a pretty name, a pretty voice, and pretty long hair. We'll remember her Rapunzel-length tresses long after we forget her show at Feinstein's at the Regency, which was -- well, pretty forgettable.

A crossover country megastar, Gayle is singing standards these days and doing a less than stellar job of interpreting lyrics. It's remarkable how, when she sings, one song sounds so much like the next. Yes, they all sound beautiful -- Gayle's voice is beguiling -- but the sameness of each number eventually becomes numbing. Whether she's singing the notes of "I'm Beginning to the See the Light" (Ellington/George/Hodges/James) or "What'll I Do?" (Irving Berlin), it's clear that Gayle neither sees the light nor knows what to do with a lyric.

There are rare times when she breaks through the monotony to put her own spin on a song. "You've Been Talkin' in Your Sleep" (Roger Cook/Bobby Wood) works, probably because it's a story song. For the most part, though, it's only when Gayle gets around to her signature tunes -- e.g., "Don't it Make My Brown Eyes Blue?" (Richard Leigh) --that she manages to put some feeling into her renditions. Gayle continues at Feinstein's through this Saturday, October 25, with both early and late shows each night. This one is strictly for fans.

********************

Life is a Cabaret Convention

We caught more than half of Tuesday's Cabaret Convention show at Town Hall before slipping out to see Crystal Gale's opening at Feinstein's. We left Wednesday's festivities during intermission to attend a press performance of The Boy From Oz. We hate missing any of the Convention, but we were especially disappointed to miss chunks on these two nights: The first was a heartfelt tribute to Julie Wilson on her birthday and the second was a star-studded centennial celebration of the late Al Hirschfeld.

Julie Wilson(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
Julie Wilson
(Photo © Michael Portantiere)
On Tuesday, Brent Barrett performed a stirring medley from Kiss Me, Kate, noting that he had recently appeared in London in the show (gaining an Olivier nomination in the process) and that Julie Wilson herself had once starred in the Cole Porter classic in London. Marnie Baumer represented a great many young performers who have received encouragement and support from Julie; she recalled how Julie once took her hand and said, "I'm not worried about you anymore." Then, with her rendition of "When You Believe" (Stephen Schwartz), Baumer showed the audience in no uncertain terms what Julie meant. Anna Bergman proved that classically trained sopranos can be hilarious with a dazzling medley that was brilliantly arranged by Alex Rybeck. Julie Wilson herself sang in the first act, which was a surprise; we would have thought they'd save her for the finale. She stopped the show by simply coming on stage and then she was her usual, robust, loveable self, singing Peter Allen's "Everything Old is New Again." If Julie stopped the show with her entrance, Tom Andersen stopped it again with his performance of "Right Field." He had the audience cheering and applauding long before the song was finished. Andersen closed the first act -- and he owned it, as well.

Devoted as it was to Hirschfeld, Wednesday became the Convention's musical theater evening. Some may complain that the Convention tends to draw too heavily on Broadway, but cabaret and stage musicals are kissing cousins; after all, many a tune born on the Great White Way finds its way to classic status by being performed year after year in cabaret. That truth was vividly brought home on Wednesday night when Christine Andreas gave a scintillating performance of "Storybook" from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Initially, this song was buried in the score of the show and was first brought to prominence by such cabaret stars as Tom Andersen. Later in the run(s) of Pimpernel, after the song's greatness had been revealed, it was given a featured spot at the very top of the show.

Musical theater's connection to cabaret was also stressed by the fact that the vast majority of performers heard and seen on Tuesday were folks who have had stellar careers in both fields: Christine Andreas, Heather Mac Rae, KT Sullivan, Mark Nadler, Jason Graae, Marcia Lewis-Bryan, Donna McKechnie, Sharon McNight, etc.

Higher-level production values than we're used to were displayed on this Cabaret Convention evening. Usually, folks just come out and sing; instead, the stars were surreptitiously brought onto the stage behind big blow-ups of their Hirschfeld caricatures. Tommy Tune, resplendent in red sparkles from top to bottom (including his tap shoes), stepped out from behind the first caricature that rolled on. You can always count on Tune to get a show off to a snappy start; but Sullivan and Nadler, who performed a big chunk of their splendid new Irving Berlin show, dominated the first act. It didn't have anything to do with Hirschfeld, but it had a lot to do with that wonderful blending of musical theater and cabaret.