Australian entertainment legend Peter Allen lives again as Celebration Theatre treats SoCal audiences to the long-awaited West Coast Premiere of the 2003 Broadway smash The Boy From Oz, the most all-around sensational L.A. intimate-theater musical I’ve seen since the Celebration’s award-sweeping The Color Purple four years back.
In the role that had fellow Boy From Oz Hugh Jackman packing them in for a solid year at New York’s Imperial Theatre, native Aussie Andrew Bongiorno makes an electrifying U.S. theater debut, one that (along with Michael A. Shepperd’s inspired direction) takes us along on Peter’s song-&-dance, laughter-&-tears stroll down memory lane from somewhere up in musical theater heaven.
From our first glimpse of a preteen Peter Woolnough (Michayla Brown) giving the Australian bush locals—and his peacock-proud mom Marion (Kelly Lester)—a taste of the Aussie superstar he would someday become to Bongiorno’s Peter teaming with childhood chum Chris Bell (Marcus S. Daniel) as the “Allen Brothers” to a chance meeting with Judy Garland herself (Bess Motta) that leads to romance and subsequent marriage to a certain Liza (Jessica Pennington), The Boy From Oz proves one of Broadway’s most entertaining bio-musicals since Gypsy.
Book writers Martin Sherman and Nick Enright tell Peter’s tale jukebox musical-style by having their leading man perform nightclub renditions of Allen’s “Not The Boy Next Door,” “I Still Call Australia Home,” and “I go To Rio” while at the same time propelling Peter’s story with gem after Allen-catalog gem (some of them cowritten with the likes of Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Dean Pitchford).
Peter extols Judy’s over-40 charms in “Only An Older Woman,” falls in love with Liza to “The Best That You Can Do” and breaks up with her to “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love,” meets the love of his life in “If You Were Wondering,” and discovers that Happily is not always Ever After in “Love Don’t Need A Reason,” songs originally recorded either by Allen himself or by artists like Olivia Newton-John, Melissa Manchester, and Rita Coolidge.
Sherman and Enright’s Tony-nominated book turns us into rapt flies on the walls of Peter’s memories, and never more so than when our “bicoastal” hero falls for fashion model Gregory Connell (Michael Mittman) only to find their love tested as the AIDS epidemic ravages Broadway in the mid-1980s.
Still, while audiences should come armed with hankies for The Boy From Oz’s more emotion-wrenching moments, the accent is decidedly on entertainment, triple-threat extraordinaire Bongiorno radiating charisma, charm, sex-appeal, and powerful acting chops in a song-and-dance star turn that will have audiences asking themselves, “Hugh who?”
The Celebration discovery is aided and abetted every step of the way by master director Shepperd and by ace choreographer Janet Roston, who outdoes herself in production number after production number, from the infectiously bouncy “Love Crazy” to the orgiastic “Continental American” to the Rockettes high kicks of “Everything Old Is New Again” to the get-up-and-boogie “Not The Boy Next Door” to the get-up-and-samba “I Go To Rio.”
A quintet of supporting performances deserve special mention—Motta’s spellbinding Judy Garland (both spot-on impersonation and authentic acting turn), Pennington’s tough-vulnerable-gutsy Liza (with pipes to reach the rafters and beyond), Lester’s warm and winning Marion (who scores the evening’s loudest cheers with a gorgeous, gut-wrenching “Don’t Cry Out Loud”), Mittman’s sweet, sexy, deeply moving Greg (and his exquisite, heartbreaking “I Honestly Love You”) and pint-sized Brown’s irresistible, disbelief-suspending young Peter.
Ensemble members execute multiple cameos to perfection while singing and dancing to match the best on our regional theater stages. Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Chelsea Martin, and Shanta’ Marie Robinson give Deena, Effie, and Lorrell a run for their money, with dance captain Daniel, Michael Taylor Gray (as Peter’s drunken oaf of a Dad Dee), and Nathan Mohebbi (as Judy’s fourth husband Mark Herron) matching them every step of the way, Mohebbi in particular displaying star potential only just beginning to be tapped.
Yuri Okahama’s simple but classy scenic design not only suits director Shepperd’s surreal memory-musical approach but maximizes the Lex Theatre’s matchbox stage while still making room for whiz musical director Bryan Blaskie and gifted fellow band members Omar D. Brancato, Stephen Dizon, and Noelle Fabian to provide Vegas-ready live accompaniment.
Derrick McDaniel’s vivid lighting, Michael O’Hara’s myriad period props, Byron Batista’s tiptop hair and wig design, and Eric Snodgrass’s expert sound design all contribute to The Boy From Oz’s thoroughly professional sheen.
Still, it is Michael Mullen’s stunning array of costumes that earn the production’s highest design marks. From his pitch-perfect Judy-and-Liza gowns to some classic girl group glamour to countless production number dazzlers to Peter’s seemingly infinite array of aloha shirts, this is Mullen’s most stellar work since his multiple-award-winning Dreamgirls designs.
Kyle Cooper is assistant director and Michael Quiett is assistant choreographer. Jennifer Leigh Sears is production stage manager.
Casting is by Jami Rudofsky. Brielle Battino, Mat J. Hayes, and Alex Mohajer are swings.
The Boy From Oz is produced by Andrew Carlberg and presented by Celebration Theatre and Bruce W. Zisterer in association with Nicholas Caprio, Michael C. Kricfalusi, Todd Milliner, and Jack Morrisey. Celebration Theatre executive director Kricfalusi, co-artistic directors Michael Matthews and Shepperd, managing director O’Hara, producing director Rebecca Eisenberg, and literary director Nathan Frizzell are executive producers. Mark Giberson is associate producer.
Only in Los Angeles could a great big Broadway extravaganza get downsized to 55-seat proportions as spectacularly as Celebration Theatre has pulled off in The Boy From Oz. It does L.A. intimate theater (and the immortal Peter Allen) proud.
Celebration Theatre at Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood.
April 29, 2106
Photos: Casey Kringlen