By Colin Douglas
In Pride Films and Plays’ biggest, splashiest production to date, Director David Zak and Musical Director Robert Ollis have teamed up to present the sparkling 2003 biographical Broadway spectacular, Boy From Oz, that recounts the journey to success of Australian performer/songwriter Peter Allen.
Essentially a jukebox musical featuring the best of Allen’s compositions, the show tells the story of the effervescent Aussie who, at a young age, began entertaining for pocket change in his hometown pub. Supported and encouraged by his devoted mother, Marion, but belittled and abused by his drunken father, Peter Woolnough goes on to meet and join talents with another young singer/musician, Chris Bell.
Together they perform as the Allen Brothers, who become a staple of the Australian Bandstand TV show and, after much success, take their show on the road.
While performing at the Hong Kong Hilton, Peter meets, befriends and eventually becomes the opening act for Judy Garland. Then in New York City, Peter meets Judy’s attention-starved daughter, Liza Minnelli.
Seeing himself in this young woman, whose personality and talent are also bursting, Peter believes he’s fallen in love. Against Judy’s advice, the two marry, and both Peter’s and Liza’s careers take off in different directions. With his star rising and enmeshed in a hedonistic lifestyle, Peter succumbs to his sexual desires with all the handsome young men surrounding him. Just as Liza is suspecting that her marriage is a sham, Garland dies. During this dark period, Liza and Peter split up but still remain friends over the years.
Following this era, Peter becomes a solo performer/songwriter. Among his many followers, Allen meets and falls in love with Greg Connell, a handsome fashion model from Texas. Soon after Greg and Peter move in together, Allen is discovered by music producer Dee Anthony, who further promotes the singer’s career. Peter Allen finds he’s now living the dream, happy and in love, performing sellout shows at the Copacabana, Radio City Music Hall and writing Grammy Award-winning songs for major recording artists. He even wins an Oscar for “Best That You Can Do,” the theme from the film, “Arthur.”
When Greg suddenly becomes sick and dies from an AIDS-related illness, Peter realizes that he’s also afflicted. He returns home to his mother in Australia. There he recalls how, as a youngster, he always had that same drive to entertain and, while staring death in the face, Allen gives one final concert for his homeland. Peter chooses to end his life the way he lived it and goes out with a flourish and a bang.
Boy From Oz, with a book by Nick Enright and songs from the Peter Allen songbook, had its 1998 world premiere in Sydney, Australia. It then enjoyed success touring across the country over the next two years, eventually coming to the attention of New York producers. Playwright Martin Sherman was brought in to smooth out Enright’s book and Americanize it a bit. Popular screen actor Hugh Jackman was cast to star in the Broadway production. Although it wasn’t well received by the critics, the show became an audience hit. This was primarily attributed to Jackman’s captivating, tour de force performance. For his luminous portrayal, Jackman was honored with the 2004 Tony Award for Leading Actor in a Musical.
Despite a clunky script, Zak’s premiere of this long-awaited, much-anticipated show sparkles with terrific performances of some wonderful musical numbers. Indeed, this production is truly all about the songs and dances. Featuring music, both familiar and memorable, as well as some melodies that may be new to most audiences, patrons may find it difficult to refrain from singing along or dancing in the aisles.
“I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “I Honestly Love You” and the contagious finale, “Rio,” shine amidst wonderful, if lesser familiar tunes, like “Love Crazy,” “Not the Boy Next Door,” “Bi-Coastal,” “Everything Old is New Again” and Allen’s anthem to his roots down under, “I Still Call Australia Home.”
Robert Ollis brings these songs and more to the forefront of this show.
Ollis, who not only musical directs, but conducts and plays keyboard with his six-member above-the-stage band, supplies the life force of this production. His talents are matched and supported by the superb, often electrifying choreography created by Cameron Turner, as well as by John Nasca’s absolutely stunning, flashy 70’s costumes (wear sunglasses to avoid glare from all those sequins!). Together, these artists create an intoxicating abundance of sparkle and joy on the 773 stage.
In the title role of Peter Allen, Chris Logan, a standout in various roles at Theo Ubique and the recent star of Bailiwick’s Murder Ballad, absolutely owns this show. Although slighter than Allen, Logan bears a striking energy and facial resemblance to the Aussie performer, right down to his infectiously devilish smile. Logan is a skilled singer and an astoundingly talented dancer, which makes his portrayal all-encompassing and magnetic.
In addition to his take-no-prisoners showmanship, Logan happens to be a skilled dramatic actor. There’s a moment (one of many, actually) when Peter is holding Greg (played with a smooth, gentle likability by boyish-looking charmer, Luke Meierdiercks), comforting him and fighting back the tears, trying to be strong for his dying lover. The anguish and helplessness radiating from both actors, particularly from Logan, is moving and honest, with the emotion aimed directly at each theatergoer’s heart. For all Logan’s power and pizzazz and musicality, it’s moments like this that the audience remembers long after the final curtain.
Logan is backed by an excellent ensemble of equally talented performers. As Judy Garland, Nancy Hays is terrific. Returning to her theatrical roots, Hays has a fantastic, professional voice. She’s matched by Michelle Lauto in her portrayal of Liza Minnelli. Both eschew the temptation to play their iconic roles as caricatures, while still portraying the essence of these women. The mannerisms, the voices, the demeanor and charisma are all there, with both actresses almost stealing the show.
Playing Marion, the impeccably reliable Michelle McKenzie-Voigt is a class act as Peter’s mother. Becoming a pillar of strength and Allen’s strongest supporter, Marion is feisty, loving and remarkably open-minded for that time period. Voigt’s rendition of “Don’t Cry Out Loud” especially stands as one of this production’s highlights. David Kaplinsky is excellent as Chris Bell; Brad Senffner and Liz Bollar are both very good as Dee and Josie Anthony; and Garrett Hershey leaves his mark as young Petey Woolnough, opening the show with a tapping “When I Get My Name in Lights.” The huge backup ensemble of singers and dancers is unstoppable, scintillating in multiple roles, embellishing the stage with glitz and glamour.
This shimmering, splashy production absolutely lights up Belmont Avenue. Zak has wisely elected to showcase Peter Allen’s songs, dance numbers and electrifying showmanship over the show’s weaker script, although the Aussie performer’s story does come through in fits and spurts. In the title role, Logan absolutely owns this show. He’s the reason to see this production as he completely transforms into Peter Allen and makes the entire stage his own.
Although the book is loose and episodic, and seems to exist merely as a way to connect Allen’s music, Pride Films & Plays’ latest offering is an entertaining, enlightening tribute to a man who brought so much life and joy to everyone around him.
“Boy From Oz” is presented through August 30 by Pride Films & Plays at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Tickets are available online here or by phone at (773) 327-5252. Additional reviews from Colin Douglas may be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.