Dallas — I never saw Peter Allen perform (except in several compelling YouTube videos) but I’m totally fascinated by Alex Ross’ depiction of the singer/songwriter, honing his performance style and coming to terms with his homosexuality, in his personal life—and on the stage. Long-limbed and graceful in his embrace of a lover or an audience, Ross’ Allen has a ringing tenor voice, a boyish appeal and an infectious exuberance that set the tone for a terrific ensemble production of The Boy from Oz, a bio/jukebox musical featuring Allen’s highly autobiographical songs.
Cheryl Denson directs Uptown Players’ regional professional premiere of the show, which received a Tony nomination for Best Musical in 2004 and earned Hugh Jackman a Best Actor Tony in the title role. With her signature precision, elegance and playfulness, Denson utilizes perfectly the proscenium stage at the Kalita Humphreys Theater to create the depth and excitement of big production numbers, enhanced by Suzi Cranford’s gorgeously glittering and feathered ensemble costumes. The staging allows for instant audience intimacy when Allen steps front and center to deliver the first-person narration of his life.
And what a life. From his hard-times childhood in a small Australia town, through his discovery by Judy Garland (a sharply angled and ferociously smiling Janelle Lutz), his fateful marriage to her daughter Liza Minnelli (red hot and awesome Sarah Elizabeth Smith), his lifelong love for his partner Greg Connell (a quietly handsome Kyle Montgomery), and the rise of his solo career performing at the Copacabana and major international venues, Allen is always performing. Yet his burning need for fame and fortune is always tempered by his generous outpouring of energy and loyalty in his personal relationships and onstage.
Despite the sometimes maudlin and clumsy book written by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright, Denson emphasizes the joy and sincere emotion of the songs, and choreographer Jeremy Dumont‘s dancers pump energy and wit into the show. (I loved the high-kicking Rockette chorus augmented by life-size puppets.) Allen wrote one hit after another, many sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Olivia Newton-John, and music director Scott A. Eckert integrates the songs into a bright thread reflecting Allen’s feelings in a given scene.
Ross smilingly handles the demands of narrating a scene, then stepping into the action to sing, dance, and talk about matters of the heart, the exigencies of biology and the demands of a performance-driven career. This includes Allen tap-dancing with his childhood self (a strong-voiced, crowd-pleasing young Westin Brown), in the born-to-perform number “When I Get My Name in Lights.”
As the show goes forward, Ross trusts his own biological and performance instincts increasingly. He boogies gleefully with Smith’s alluring Liza in “Arthur’s Theme” (“Best That You Can Do”), but by the second act, we know for sure this high-powered, piano-thumping, hip-grinding singer is definitely “Not the Boy Next Door.” Even at his most flamboyant and manic, Hawaiian shirt tied at his midriff and making love to a grand piano, Ross retains an innocence born of joy in the sheer physical delight of performing, of giving it all up in the hope of pleasing his most demanding love, his audience.
The magnet that draws Judy and Liza and Allen is the recognition that they all crave the thrill of fame, but long for some kind of personal salvation in the name of love. When Greg has died of AIDS and Peter is sick, Liza shows up to remind him who he is in a touching rendition of “You and Me.”
Everybody in the show contributes to the fun, particularly Smith. She can shift from vulnerable child to charismatic star in a heartbeat. It’s not just the red sequined dress and gamin haircut or hair/wig/make-up designer Coy Covington’s astonishing job with her big-eyed makeup. Smith’s embodiment of Liza Minnelli is intense and totally surefooted, especially when she cuts loose in her big solo number “She Loves to Hear the Music”—and further fires up the ensemble dancers and a happy audience.
In the tough role of an aging Judy Garland who’s been “over the goddamned rainbow” too many times to keep count, Lutz is brittle but not entirely heartless. Her rendition of “All I Wanted Was the Dream” sounds appropriately gravelly and desperate. Jodi Wright is warm and enthusiastic as Allen’s loving mother, overcoming an abusive marriage to support and encourage her talented son, in his career and in his romantic life. Wright’s stage moxie and rich soprano voice enliven “Everything Old Is New Again,” and give a fresh poignancy to the ballad “Don’t Cry Out Loud.”
All the hits are here, and Denson moves the long show so swiftly, with onstage costume changes and Rodney Dobbs’ magical moving sets, that one tune flows through the story and into the next to define Allen’s life and loves. Judy warns her daughter “Don’t Wish Too Hard,” and a shaken Liza eventually walks out of Allen’s life singing “I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love.” It’s a little creepy to hear Greg’s ghost sing “I Honestly Love You,” but he does it well.
The show closes with the über upbeat “I Go to Rio,” with Allen stage center, his blue eyes flashing and his body gyrating to Latin beats. The entire ensemble is onstage with him, all tricked out in handsome white and gold costumes, sparkling and fluttering with feathers and dancing to beat the band. Everybody’s got to be sweating, but it’s all so smooth, rhythmic, and melodious that we don’t even notice the hero has died.
In this show, the celebration of his life is the lasting memory.
» Read our feature on Alex Ross here