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Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
What you've heard is true: Hugh Jackman is indefatigably entertaining in The Boy From Oz. His voice has the heat of molten steel pouring from a Bessemer vat. He's got a chiseled face and figure to send women (and certain men) into Victorian swoons. He moves with the kind of grace common to the white tigers now temporarily laid off from the Siegfried and Roy show. He has a smile that warms an entire auditorium. In short, he stands a good chance of keeping this much-discussed production afloat as long as he remains in it.

But he isn't -- as someone reported to me -- the best thing to hit the Great White Way since Barbra Streisand surfaced in 1962. And he's not persuasive as singer/songwriter/man-about-town Peter Allen, whom he's portraying and who was sometimes known at "The Boy From Oz" or "The Man From Oz" ("Oz" being a shortened version of Australia). Jackman doesn't have Allen's emotional attachment to the songs he wrote, the often haunting indication that canyons of pain lay beneath all the gaiety. Nor does he play piano, and Allen's playing was a crucial element of his inimitable style. As presented here, Jackman doesn't even have Allen's hair coloring or close-cropped cut.

Not that the producers of this superficial look at Peter Allen's life are likely to worry about any of the above. They realize that there are two audiences for the show, one vastly larger than the other. The smaller group consists of people who know who Allen was and still is, considering the quality of many of the songs he left behind; the larger one is made up of Jackman fans who know little or nothing about Allen and are likely to accept on good faith whatever they're told about him.

They're being told plenty, as promised by the opening number, "The Lives of Me." The trouble with the often claptrap Boy From Oz is that some of those lives don't jibe with the truth about Allen. In Martin Sherman's libretto -- apparently much revised from the book that Nick Enright wrote for the Australian production -- Allen starts performing as a youngster (played by Mitchel David Federan), later joins up with Chris Bell (Timothy A. Fitz-Gerald) as The Allen Brothers, is discovered by Judy Garland (Isabel Keating) and brought to America where he meets and marries Liza Minnelli (Stephanie J. Block), divorces her, has a relationship with Greg Connell (Jarrod Emick), loses Connell to AIDS, wins an Academy Award for co-writing the "Theme From Arthur" ("Best That You Can Do"), flops on Broadway in Legs Diamond, and himself succumbs to AIDS with courage and gratitude for having lived.

Some of this information is imparted by Jackman as Allen, some of it is contained in scenes that are sketchily acted out. ("You know you're in trouble when the lead character has to tell you so much," my companion remarked.) Either way, much of the information is dubious and/or misleading, perhaps even outright wrong. For instance, Sherman has it that Garland discouraged Allen from marrying Liza, though many have insisted that she encouraged the romance. Liza is presented as a paragon of stability, which show-biz history surely doesn't corroborate. As the book stands, Allen appears to be an only child -- but he actually has a sister, Lynne Smith. No mention is made of Allen writing with others, although he often did; he shared that Arthur Oscar with Carole Bayer Sager, Burt Bacharach, and Christopher Cross, and made amusing comments about splitting the statuette among his colleagues. (It's an unintentional hoot that, in the show, he and Liza sing this song while they're courting.)

But there's little point in going on about such discrepancies when Ben Gannon, one of the show's producers, has stated that "to create a musical, you've got to make something that's going to work for a very big worldwide audience." Furthermore, Gannon has said, "I don't really think Peter had a dark side." Given that such thinking -- which assumes it's okay to fiddle with the facts of someone's life in order to provide a few musical-comedy kicks -- is behind the enterprise, it's clear that illumination of Allen's complexities was a not a topmost concern here. Chances are that no one involved listened closely to one of Allen's most autobiographical songs, "Tenterfield Saddler," which is about him, his father (who committed suicide), and his grandfather. Tellingly, this heart-ripping memory song is not included in the Boy From Oz score.

Stephanie J. Block, Hugh Jackman, and Isabel Keating
in The Boy From Oz
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The musical's purveyors are more interested in having bookwriter Sherman carpenter scenes into which Allen's songs can be stuffed anachronistically, as if they were written by him to commemorate the events covered. Worse, Judy Garland -- back from the dead in a '60s-Garland white dress, designed by William Ivey Long -- joins Allen for the bathetic "Quiet Please, There's a Lady On Stage." (Not everything Allen wrote was top-drawer.) Greg Connell, back from the dead in a white sweater and trousers, sings "I Honestly Love You" (which Allen wrote with Tin Pan Alley figure Jeff Barry). "Continental American," co-written with Sager, is used and abused in a vignette meant to depict Allen's debauchery.

Nevertheless, some good can be spotted in this theatrical hokum besides Jackman, who works for every penny he's being paid. There's a truly rousing "I Go to Rio" finale. And there's the cast, more than adequately directed by Philip Wm. McKinley. Mitchel David Federan as young Peter bounces about the stage with unnerving aplomb; he absconds with every scene he's in and even gets to do some fancy steps that Joey McKneely thought up. (The bulk of McKneely's choreography is typically cheesy.) Isabel Keating looks breathtakingly like Garland and has the mannerisms down to every toss of a microphone cord. She doesn't sound exactly like Judy, but then again, who could? Beth Fowler, who has to play much of her role as Allen's mom at one end of a phone, is staunch; Michael Mulheren as Allen's manager, the burly Dee Anthony, is commanding; Jarrod Emick is a straightforward (no pun intended) boyfriend for Allen and, as usual, he sings sensitively.

Less convincing is Stephanie J. Block's Liza, outfitted with the wrong hairdo in the early scenes by wigmaster Paul Huntley. Block has noticed -- who hasn't? -- that Liza has unique speech patterns but, rather than go for the breathiness, she settles for an unsettling English (!) accent. She puts everything she's got into "She Loves to Hear the Music," which is maybe meant to represent a number from the Liza With a Z tele-variety hour, but what she cannot conjure is the "love me, love me!" neediness that underlies just about every authentic Minnelli performance.

Obviously, a lot of money has been hurled at The Boy From Oz. Yet, aside from a couple of stunning finale costumes by William Ivey Long, the show looks chintzy as designed by Robin Wagner and lit by Donald Holder -- almost as if the producers are already thinking ahead to the trimmed-down road tours. Of course, no road tour of this show is likely to star Hugh Jackman. And then what?

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