BWW Review: Splashy West Coast Premiere of THE BOY FROM OZ
Once in a great while an extraordinary performer comes along, one that not only moves us, but also affects meteoric changes within our culture. Peter Allen, born Peter Woolnough in 1944 in Tenterfield, New South Wales, Australia and who died young in 1992, was one such mega-talented singer/dancer/musical composer, who appealed to a wide audience.Not at first, mind you; it took a few years in the 60s for him to realize his bisexuality and to understand who he was.
His taste in clothes and overall stage performance attitude made straight audiences brand him "a screaming queen' and gay audiences, boring and colorlessly "straight". In the 70s Allen's boyfriend model Greg Connelly became his designer onstage and changed the whole look of his act for the better, causing gay audiences to perk up. The result? The career soared worldwide.
The Boy From OZ, which garnered a Tony Award for Hugh Jackman as Best Actor in a Musical in 2004, is the life story of Allen told through his songs. The action spans the 50s through the 90s. OZ has never played beyond Broadway until now. In a spectacular West Coast premiere at the Celebration Theatre, OZ will most likely sell out and extend through the summer. It's that good! It's on the books now through June 19.
The show is a remarkable turn through the idol's life. Allen (Andrew Bongiorno) takes the audience on an odyssey from his home town of Tenterfield (as a young boy Michayla Brown steps in), through his formative years and on to success in New York and California. His mother Marion (Kelly Lester) was beaten by his father (Michael Taylor Gray), an alcoholic, who also abused the boy by trying to steal his meager performance wages. The father ended up shooting himself - which we do not see onstage until the end - and his death left agonizing emotional scars on Peter. Peter's grandfather, George Woolnough, was a saddler and brought pride to the family, immortalized in Allen's song "Tenterfield Saddler". Not hard to understand then, Allen's heritage remained a complicated mix for him throughout his life ("I Still Call Australia Home") Traveling in Hong Kong early on in the career with Chris Bell (Marcus S. Daniel) - they were known as the Allen Brothers - Allen met Judy Garland (Bess Motta) in a bar and got to know her casually and then professionally. He fell in love with Judy's daughter Liza Minnelli (Jessica Pennington), whom he married. Their marriage lasted 7 years, but they remained friends to the end. A large chunk of the first act explores the relationships of the trio in a never ending round of partying, intoxication and turmoil. Being married to Liza, Allen could not escape being 'married' to Judy as well. Her presence loomed that large. After his breakup with Liza, he fell in love with Greg Connelly (Michael Mittman) and they remained lovers until Connelly's premature death from AIDS.
Remembering Peter Allen means more than noting his checkered rise to stardom and his association with Judy and Liza and other singing greats for whom he wrote like Olivia Newton-John and Melissa Manchester. He became an openly gay man who dared to be himself on and off stage. His music is a reflection of his fragile interior being, and songs like "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love", "I Honestly Love You", "Don't Cry Out Loud" and "Once Before I Go" express his depth of feeling about relationships and living one's life to the fullest. His bold passion is a triumph for gay men everywhere, helping to rid the world of homophobia. After Connelly died, Allen himself was stricken with AIDS, but he continued to perform and to champion gay rights. Gays and straights alike love his music, and that is a testament to his greatness.
Thankfully, the book of OZ by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright stays away from addictions, concentrating more on the man and his passion for the music. Yes, there is one party scene with some gratuitous nudity, but his supposed drug addiction, rumored and later validated, especially in Liza's company, is glossed over. This is not a gossipy, trashy, nasty portrayal of Peter Allen, but more a realistic yet entertaining glimpse of actual occurrences that affected his rise to the top.
Under Michael A. Shepperd's sterling direction, the ensemble are fantabulous. First of all, Shepperd's staging within the confines of the tiny space is phenomenal. With orchestra behind and stage left and three entrances and exits for actors, it's literally action center stage that includes some pretty wild and furious dance numbers choreographed with wondrous excitement by Janet Roston. Bongiorno is unbelievably charismatic, energetic and affable, matching Allen to a tee. Lester as his mom, Motta as Judy and Pennington as Liza are all equally sensational, offering up their songs with drive and intensity. Mittman is terrific as Connelly with a winning personality and fine chemistry with Bongiorno. Kudos to Taylor-Gray for his various portrayals and to Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Chelsea Martin Nathan Nohebbi, Shanta Marie Robinson and to little Brown for her energized portrayal of young Peter. Praise as well to Yuri Okahana for efficient scenic design, Michael Mullen for wonderfully vibrant costuming, Derrick McDaniel for lighting and Eric Snodgrass for sound. And who can forget Bryan Blaskie for his outstanding musical direction?
The Boy From OZ is entertainment on a grand scale. You will leave the theatre loving the man, his music and realizing just how important was his involvement in bringing the gay rights movement full circle. Reserve your tix now! Don't miss out!