Uptown Players sure has the knack for turning what could be a stinky sow’s ear into a chic, resplendent silk purse. The right venue, a region’s best production team and a genuinely talented ensemble of players make that magic happen. The company’s current production (through August 10) of a bio-musical homage to an Australian pop singer/composer, The Boy From Oz, is a surefire delight to experience, no matter how much of an opportunistic twit Peter Allen may have been or how superficial the show is.
A “jukebox musical”, The Boy From Oz presents a Hollywood celebrity-style view of the life of Australian song stylist/songwriter Peter Allen, featuring an array of his catchy tunes, including the theme song from Arthur (“The Best That You can Do”) and Olivia Newton-John’s mega-hit “I Honestly Love You”. Its world premiere took place in Sydney, Australia in 1998. It toured Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, playing to over 1.2 million theatre patrons over a two-year period. Playwright Martin Sherman adapted it for a US audience, expanding the roles of Allen’s wife Liza Minelli and her mother Judy Garland. The result became a tremendous star vehicle for Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen, opening on Broadway in 2003, and ultimately earned back its initial investment of $8.25 million. The show received numerous Tony nominations in 2004. Jackman won both Tony and Drama Desk awards for Best Leading Actor in a Musical. In spite of its evident success, it did not receive positive acclaim from all critics. In his October 17, 2003 New York Times review, Ben Brantley called the show “bathetic” and “indisputably bogus”. He elaborated, ‘If you don’t have an Atlas in the leading role, everything topples into that dark and ghoulish memory bank that is always awaiting Broadway failures.” Adding “and if you don’t have two outstanding performers portraying Judy Garland and Liza Minelli”, Brantley’s thoughts match mine. This is one banal, potentially tedious show. Uptown Players’ cast, director and technical production team turn it into a stunner of a silk purse at the best venue to present it in the region. That’s genuine stage magic.
As this show’s regional premiere’s “Atlas”, Director Cheryl Denson cast handsome song-meister Alex Ross as Peter Allen, and he never disappoints. Performing often in secondary roles where he gets limited opportunity to demonstrate his exceptionally fine voice, in Boy From Oz Ross demonstrates star quality, buoyancy and old-fashioned, well-schooled vocal chops. Peter spends a lot of time flouncing onto the stage wearing different semi-sexy Hawaiian-themed ensembles, sporting an ear to ear grin and hurtling himself up onto one downstage piano or another, where he writhes around and warbles a lengthy tune. With a lesser performer (and director) this could become boring in repetition. Ross has terrific stage charisma and endless vocal staying power. Opening night he seemed to endear himself more to an enraptured core Uptown Players’ subscriber base with every chintzy re-entrance he made. What a perfect casting for this role, and impeccably directed.
Director Denson cast Janelle Lutz to play Judy Garland and Sarah Elizabeth Smith to play Liza Minelli. Costumed by Suzi Cranford, wearing wigs by Coy Covington, both women capture the spirit and soul as well as the defining mannerisms of these two iconic stars without descending into base mimicry.
Of all the characters in the show, these two exhibit the most honest flesh and blood capacity. Denson capitalizes on it, which helps give the show depth beyond torchy daytime TV drama shtick. Sarah Elizabeth Smith’s performance as Liza in concert singing “She Loves to Hear the Music” tops the show, with Alex Ross’ rendition of the Act One closer “Not the Boy Next Door” running it a close second.
Rodney Dobbs’ dynamic, flowing, multi-level, multi-colored set keeps both eye and imagination entertained and supports intimate scenes and expansive chorus numbers with fluid ease. Denson mounts the show at a breakneck pace; Virgil Justice’s sound design and Amanda West’s lighting design complement the peppy tempo, which helps keep the audience focused on the action, not the non-ending scene and set transitions. How fabulous when all production elements work harmoniously to allow a show to achieve full potential. I congratulate Uptown Players for their high-energy summertime hit. I am pleased to see a homegrown, hometown theatre company succeed with such recurring style in the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Uptown Players presents the regional premiere of The Boy From Oz through August 10, 2014
TICKETS: (214) 219-2718 www.uptownplayers.org
Photos by Mike Morgan
Ben Brantley’s review: