THE BOY FROM OZ - MELBOURNE
THE BOY FROM OZ, The Production Company at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne. 11-26 August 2018. Photography: above - Rohan Browne and friends; below - Browne and Caroline O’Connor; below again - young Peter in Tenterfield
Some shows have a use-by date, The Boy From Oz is not one of them because it’s the life and music of Peter Allen as penned by one of Australia’s best, the late Nick Enright, who like Peter Allen departed this mortal coil too early. Their collective contribution to theatre and music is for rejoicing. I miss them both.
Enright knew it would be difficult to navigate the challenges of writing a biographical musical, especially about a man who Australia had decided to own, even when living overseas. What Enright has given us is the showman and the life, easily shifting between the two.
“The Boy” is Peter Woolnough – a northern NSW small-town lad with big ideas and talent. The talent was demonstrated from an early age and was unfailingly supported by a doting and loving mother. Peter headed for the Big Smoke as soon as he could – at the age of 18 – to make it big...on the Gold Coast; enter Peter Allen. Even though he lived most of his truncated life overseas he didn’t ever forget his roots, cue Tenterfield Saddler.
Was it fate that he met his childhood pin-up, Judy Garland, while working in Singapore? It fits the story so let’s call it fate, for from that time on his life changed as he chased his dream of entertaining the masses and writing songs that resonated (and still do). It was Garland’s fabled giving of her soul as a singer that fed Allen.
Now to the production at hand, presented by he Production Company, which has a unique way of delivering theatre. They get great performers, they have two weeks to rehearse and then they’re on. It must be a pretty scary proposition for all concerned and a testament to the talent we have in this country. They were all brilliant.
Learning the choreography (by Michael Ralph) for starters: there are so many songs, so many routines – I have nothing but admiration. Then the songs, harmonies and words to learn, all to make a seamless experience for the audience. This they achieved in spades.
The Boy From Oz is a big, small-scale production. There’s a simple set (Christina Smith) open stage, band at the back and a stairway to heaven. Brilliantly lit by Trent Suidgeest, it gave us the pizzazz and the stars and even with limited lighting for intimate scenes it worked.
The band/orchestra is led well by musical director, the inimitable Michael Tyack while director Jason Langley brings the show to bubbling, energetic life. It’s no mean feat – moving so many performers around the stage.
Rohan Brown embraces the role of Peter Allen. It is difficult going from the showman to “the story” but he has the glitz, the glamour, the Aussie larrikin, the pathos and the voice – even battling and overcoming a few sound problems on opening night. Caroline O’Connor did Judy Garland proud. It is always a challenge to play such an icon, but we got the essence of Garland and her relationship with Allen and her demons, all coming out in the beautiful Quiet Please There's a Lady on Stage.
Robyn Arthur plays Marion, Peter’s mum, and a mum she is, linking his life and times as the narrator. But it is her rendition of Don’t Cry Out Loud that cements her as one of the best. She is wonderfully selfless, working alongside the young Peter, played in the performance I saw by a terrific Hudson Sharp.
As Allen’s long-term boyfriend Greg, Maxwell Simon is perfect, playful, supportive and fearful with a voice to match. Loren Hunter as Liza Minnelli tried a little too hard with the clipped voice, I am sure this will settle in through the run.
The entire company works well, dressed in an abundance of bling by costume designer Tim Chappel. If there is chaos backstage with so many costume and shoe changes, we don’t see it – remarkable. The line-up for the Radio City number to open the second half is fantastic.
The audience for this show is there wanting a good time. They’re either devotees of The Production Company or devotees of Peter Allen, and either way they get what they came for. They laugh, they talk back, they tap their feet and they cry. What more could you ask for in a night out at the theatre?
The cast, the crew, the creatives, all deserved their standing ovation. Take a hanky – Recommended.