BWW Reviews: Theatre Memphis' THE BOY FROM OZ - Sparkles Aren't Just for July 4th
There was a time when it seemed as if any talent contender in a beauty pageant would lay into "Don't Cry Out Loud" (later, Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" seemed to supplant it). It crept out of every radio station ad nauseum. Its almost iconic "ear candy" status rendered it cringe-inducing, as far as I was concerned. Moreover, its composer and interpreter, Australian Peter Allen, was not the kind of performer I enjoyed - I prefer my talent without the "over the top" exclamation point; he belonged, to my way of thinking, to the Liberace/Barry Manilow/Liza Minelli kind of performer. (Admittedly, I have a number of friends who take issue with this and who, rope in hand, would gladly pursue me if lynching were acceptable.) Their "showmanship" and "over the top" self-promotion proved exhausting. However, the intervening years have reconciled me to Allen's music, and THE BOY FROM OZ. with a book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright and a parade of Allen songs, has, in Theatre Memphis' latest offering, even somewhat endeared me to him.
First of all, I admire Theatre Memphis' courage in staging it. I remember audience members incensed and walking out over hustlers embracing in the flawlessly performed SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (a number of people even penned negative objections); and here, in all his glittery glory, is the bisexual Allen, discovered by none other than that crown jewel of gay legends, Judy Garland herself (as renowned an amalgam of talent, dependencies, and broken relationships as a pair of ruby slippers could support). In fact, when, in Act I, Judy's daughter Liza (Minelli) becomes attracted to him, it's more than a soupcon of gasoline being doused upon the flame; and, despite the misgivings of "been there, done that" "Judy," the Allen-dazzled daughter has to learn from her own mistakes. As mother and daughter, Debbie Litch and Emily F. Chateau (she nails Minelli's tendency to gush) offer vocal inflections in both speaking and singing that evoke those two legends (Ms. Litch belts with such power that she is particularly missed in the second act, though her final appearance in Act I is visually and vocally stunning).
While Act I churns a good bit of soap with those two ladies, Act II focuses on Peter's relationship with tall Texan "Greg Connell" and his eventual contentment at being "comfortable in his own skin." He even achieves that ultimate in gilt-laden prizes, the OSCAR, and manages to achieve new career heights by riding the "high kicks" of the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall, a sort of musical Mt. Olympus for a certain type of performer. (By the way, I haven't seen such high kicks since the likes of Ray Bolger and Charlotte Greenwood - and I'm referring to Mr. Walden's kicks!) Despite all of the high points that his career and personal life seem to take, the understudy waiting in the wings is none other than the Grim Reaper, here in the form of AIDS.
There are any number of local actors (i.e., Rob Hanford, Jerre Dye) who could have toted home an Ostrander for this role, but, instead, a guest actor, Josh Walden, has been cast, and he doesn't disappoint. Not only is he musically assured, but he knows how to command a stage (though his energy level at the opening of Act II brought to mind the frenzied performance of a Richard Simmons video); and his relationships to Garland, Minelli, Connell, and his own mother (a sweetly naïve and supportive performance by Jude Knight) are moving and true. (If he ever tires of New York, Memphis audiences would love to see more of him.)
As for the other performers, it's nice to see Debbie Litch in the colorful role of "Garland," and she creates an entirely realistic, earthy depiction of a woman who has seen and sung of it all; and as "Liza," Ms. Chateau is suitably lovestruck, disillusioned, hurt, and forgiving - in short, she has endowed the part with humanity. Cary Vaughn is a solid presence as "Greg" (he also has one of the best songs, "I Honestly Love You," made popular by Olivia Newton-John); Steven Harris is engaging as Allen's "brother" and fellow performer; and David Shannon Sparks is a gruff but loyal manager. Special mention also goes to a happy, 'tappy" lad named Holden Guibao, who appears throughout the play as "Young Peter."
Director Jerry Chipman moves this enterprise along very smoothly and efficiently. Music Director and Conductor Gary Beard is assured as ever, Jared Thomas Johnson has fashioned some swirling choreography for his talented dancers, and Jack Yates is responsible for the unfussy, imaginative set. Oh, yes - and there are those costumes! If MGM was known as having "more stars than they are in Heaven," then the costume designs by Paul McCrae and Andre Bruce Ward would have twice the twinkle. Through March 29.