Lawrence Frascella
October 24, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Boy From Oz

Current Status
In Season
run date
Hugh Jackman, Stephanie J. Block, Jarrod Emick, Isabel Keating
Philip William McKinley
Martin Sherman

We gave it a B

Near the beginning of this energetic Broadway musical about the late songwriter-performer Peter Allen, Hugh Jackman (as fellow Aussie Allen) turns to the audience and asks, ”Can’t we just skip to the glamorous part?” And that basically sets the show’s glossy agenda. ”The Boy From Oz” counts mightily on the fact that Allen’s life is best remembered as a glitzy, sequined sequence of events. After all, his mentor was no less a diva than Judy Garland. He was once married to Liza Minnelli with flashy but uncomfortable results — considering the fact that he was gay. Plus, Allen (who cowrote Olivia Newton-John’s ”I Honestly Love You” and the Oscar-winning theme from ”Arthur”) eventually became a fabulous star in his own right, defining his own unique place on the pop-cabaret-disco axis of the ’70s. But like some reticent old Hollywood biopic, this musical frustratingly dodges all the deeper, messier aspects of the driven artist’s life — although it does deliver the requisite love story (or two), some undeniably dazzling career highlights, and a raft of Allen’s own songs.

Act 1 — which focuses largely on the Judy/Liza years — gets off to a rousing start as husky Mitchel David Federan (playing Allen as a boy) backflips his way into the audience’s heart. But it’s only moments before we flash forward to a Hong Kong lounge circa 1964, where the grown-up Allen first encounters the great Garland. Isabel Keating’s re-creation of Garland is uncanny; she dominates the show whenever she’s on stage. Still, Martin Sherman’s book is so thin that Keating’s performance can’t help but remain an impersonation. And once a breathless, blankly conceived Liza (Stephanie J. Block) enters the picture, the musical comes perilously close to turning into a Las Vegas Legends act, all of which gets creepier when Garland returns from the dead to sing ”Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on Stage,” Allen’s tribute song to her. This spooky level of Judy wish fulfillment might make even the most fervent Garland fan feel uneasy.

Luckily, when Judy and Liza are sidelined, things vastly improve. The play turns its queer eye in a more open, honest direction, toward a moving romance between Allen and his lover Greg Connell (Tony winner Jarrod Emick), which includes a still-daring same-sex kiss. And once Allen completes his journeyman days and dons his trademark Hawaiian shirt, Jackman’s sexy, ingratiating performance rises a significant notch or two. Forget Wolverine. This slim, loose-limbed Jackman bumps and grinds his way across the stage, winks flirtatiously at the balcony, and endlessly flashes his irresistible smile. Even more surprisingly, he possesses a big, throaty Broadway voice, which serves him best during Allen’s bombastic ballads — particularly the powerful ”Once Before I Go.”

Tragically, Allen died of complications from AIDS at age 48, but fear not — his musical would never allow itself to end on a sad note. The night climaxes with an eye-popping rendition of Allen’s most danceably popular hit, ”I Go to Rio,” complete with lighted staircase, chorus girls, and Judy’s second return from the dead. That’s showmanship, without a doubt, but the portrait of Allen remains sketchy and not a little puzzling: ”The Boy From Oz” clearly maintains that it’s better to entertain than reveal. But when did these goals become mutually exclusive?

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