This hit musical about Peter Allen still calls Australia home – and it's back in Melbourne
The second act opens with a number that could easily stand for the whole: it’s called ‘When Everything Old is New Again’, and it involves white pants, precision dancing, and ladles of melted cheese. The Boy from Oz turns 20 this year, as does the Production Company, responsible for this staging. Both the show and the company are unapologetic champions of the daggy and the aged. It’s pretty much a match made in heaven.
Peter Allen wasn’t exactly an acquired taste; he was more of a black hole of taste – only white and covered in sequins. A musical about him, constructed around his occasionally beautiful but more often ghastly songs, might sound on paper like the great Aussie slang for spew: a technicolour yawn. But in practice, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It isn’t subtle, or nuanced, or even remotely challenging, but it’s damn entertaining, and in musical theatre that counts for a lot.
Of course, the shoes are hard to fill, and that’s not even talking about the man himself. Todd McKenney initiated the role to much acclaim, only to be pipped (or bludgeoned, depending on who you ask) by Hugh Jackman. It’s hard to imagine the show storming Broadway without that cast change, and it’s hard to imagine Rohan Browne supplanting anyone’s memories of either of those previous performances. But he’s by no means a disaster. He can dance better than Allen, and his singing – while occasionally off key, and generally lacking in texture – is certainly passable. His take on the man is quite complex; there’s a suggestion that Allen’s excess is born from an emotional conservatism, that the razzle dazzle might just be a mask in front of a void.
A mean person might posit the idea that Allen was a two-bit entertainer who only rose to prominence because of his association with Judy Garland (Caroline O’Connor) and his subsequent marriage to her daughter, Liza Minnelli (Loren Hunter). It’s a theory The Boy from Oz never really disavows, because it insists on bringing back these more famous characters long after they’ve been drained of their dramatic usefulness. Especially in the second act, Garland starts to look like a highly camp fairy godmother, popping in to bolster the gays. Thankfully, O’Connor is sublime, and her every appearance a delight. Hunter is also very good, although her insistent breathy laughter (admittedly so like the real Liza, it’s uncanny) begins to wear thin after a while.
Director Jason Langley elicits a number of fine performances from the supporting cast, too. Maxwell Simon does an enormous amount with a limited role as Allen’s lover Greg and Robyn Arthur is a warm and winning mum. The ensemble are terrific, especially in the dancing, which is consistently sharp and full-throttled. Choreographer Michael Ralph has a ball mixing up the styles, from the pop-influenced ’60s Bandstand years to the high-kicking chorus lines of the Rockettes. The production looks a treat too, with Christina Smith’s simple set of a staircase framed by massive lighting rigs beautifully augmented by Trent Suidgeest’s dazzling lighting design and Tim Chappel’s flashy costumes.
The Boy from Oz is, at heart, a work of reassurance. Nick Enright’s book is as safe and predictable as any bio-musical, content to flit from incident to incident without ever asking a single question. The jukebox nature of the material – where Allen’s songs are shoe-horned into biographical episodes – means that some numbers work (‘I Honestly Love You’ is surprisingly effective) and others flop. The quality of the songs is also wildly inconsistent; Allen shares Barry Manilow’s penchant for cheap sentiment and tortured melodic phrasing. But despite this the show is largely delightful, cheeky and knowing, full of the kind of bright optimism that audiences could do with at the tail end of a long winter. It’s certainly cheaper than actually going to Rio.