When Australian actor Hugh Jackman is playing Wolverine in the X-Men films he displays extraordinary superhuman abilities. In the new Broadway musical, "The Boy From Oz," Jackman is calling up those superhuman reserves once again. In this bio-musical about another Australian entertainer, Peter Allen, Jackman proves he can also sing and dance with the best of them and then some. He also puts enough energy, vitality, panache, and sheer force of personality into portraying the gay, flamboyant entertainer and composer who died of AIDS at the age of 48 in 1992 to keep a very mediocre musical from seeming worse than it probably is.
Allen achieved a degree of local and international fame during the ’70s and ’80s writing and performing such pop hits as the theme from "Arthur," "I Go to Rio," "Don’t Cry Out Loud," and "I Honestly Love You," most frequently collaborating with Carole Bayer Sager. He made his biggest splash in New York when he became the first male to dance with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in a series of sellout concerts. And he made his biggest mistake marrying Liza Minnelli. But that’s part of the plot that I understand has been largely rewritten (although not enough) since the musical played rather successfully in Australia.
The new plot, the work of Martin Sherman, has the feeling of a skeleton without a backbone, just hanging around waiting for some flesh to appear. As staged with every stop pulled out by the enormously inventive Phillip Wm. McKinley, whose task it is to make a very skimpy production look lavish, "The Boy From Oz" moves glibly and with agility (Joey McKneeley’s choreography is snappy) through Allen’s life from childhood to youth, to young adulthood and fame.
It’s up to Jackman to keep us enthralled and amused with a first-person singular narrative. And he does. You have to hand it to Jackman for taking such complete charge of the show’s chronological conceit. Episodes that show off Allen’s talent as a budding exhibitionist are made winning by the dynamic, actually show-stopping, performing of Mitchell David Federan, as the young Allen, who on occasion shares the stage with Jackman.
The show cannot be faulted for moving along swiftly and efficiently and with just enough banalities and easy listening music to keep you awake and bemused: Allen (whose real name was Woolnough) runs away from home leaving his sweet understanding mother (Beth Fowler) alone with her alcoholic and abusive husband (Michael Mulheron); he plays hotel bar gigs with new partner (Timothy A. Fitzgerald); takes a fancy to Hawaiian shirts; gets chummy with Judy Garland (Isabel Keating) who introduces him to Liza (Stephanie J. Block), who doesn’t win his heart like Greg (Jarrod Emick).
Let’s credit Keating and Block for not turning Garland and Minnelli into caricatures. To be fair, "The Boy From Oz" may be superficial and a little cheap looking (surprising for a show with sets by Robin Wagner and costumes by William Ivey Long), but it is also playfully campy and an unabashedly aggrandizing homage to an entertainer with flair to spare. **
The Boy From Oz, Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street, New York. For tickets, $100 top. Tele-Charge at 800-432-7250 or 212-239-6200 .