There are qualitative differences even in vulgarity. Sarah Bernhardt’s London outcry, after being smothered by British proprieties, “Allons nous encanailler” (Let’s go and make pigs of ourselves), is usually considered healthy vulgarity. I don’t know whether the vulgarity in The Boy From Oz is healthy or not, but it certainly is stifling, staggering, and finally stultifying. This has little to do with gayness, and much more with relentless triviality, only minimally leavened by wit and charm.
Consider, first off, the indecision about impersonation versus enactment: Isabel Keating is both a dead ringer for Judy Garland in all her aspects and also a remarkable performer in her own right. Stephanie J. Block’s Liza Minnelli looks more like Lucy Arnaz, and does not compel as Liza, Lucy, or Stephanie. As the protagonist, Hugh Jackman looks nothing like the songwriter, entertainer, and disco-era bon vivant Peter Allen, and lacks some essential spark, vivacity, or joy that characterized the man. His Allen does seem acted rather than felt, even a mite smirkingly condescended to rather than being spontaneously combustible.
Effortfulness and indeterminacy are everywhere. Even the Allen of the program cover is, in costume and hairdo, nothing like the onstage Allen. So too the Australian book by the late Nick Enright seems to have been greatly revised by Martin Sherman; songs, credited to “Peter Allen & Others,” have been dropped or added or reordered, and the unsweet smell of perspiration is pervasive. As for the songs themselves, some are good, some not; either way, they often seem, as they are, preexistent and shoehorned in, not germane and apropos. Particularly awkward is the turning into duets of numbers suited only to one of the singers.
Joey McKneely’s choreography works well when it is deliberate pastiche, but when it tries to be more than that, it ends up less. More troubling is the direction of Philip Wm. McKinley, which confuses inconspicuousness with invisibility. But then, consider that any number of numbers involves someone singing with a ghost or the ghost of his former self, which tends to cast a pall, if not a shroud, on the proceedings.
Robin Wagner’s scenery is not quite up to his mighty best, though his second best can be good enough. William Ivey Long’s costumes, channeling Garland’s and Minnelli’s actual outfits, and some of Peter Allen’s on and offstage, end up being suffocating. The Hawaiian shirt worn loosely by Allen is worn tightly by Jackman—emblematic of a general corseting. Donald Holder’s self-conscious lighting is entirely fitting; Michael Gibson’s orchestrations are on the button and enthusiastically played under Patrick Vaccariello’s baton. Even so, despite the tragic deaths of three of the principals, I never felt moved, largely because AIDS doesn’t lend itself to the feel-good glamorization it gets.
Jarrod Emick and Beth Fowler persuasively play the main lover and warmly maintaining mother, but like Jackman’s grown Peter, I am bothered by Mitchel David Federan’s child Allen. Although the boy sings and dances admirably, he is somehow unappealing, even if that is the only respect in which his portrayal resembles that of his adult self.
There is, I suppose, an overarching difficulty with stage biographies of still-very-much-remembered persons. Their authors end up damned if they do, damned if they don’t. One way, they are proclaimed slavish imitators of things believed to be (rightly or wrongly) inimitable; the other way, they are perceived as taking unconscionable liberties. If the authors are geniuses, they can get away with anything, but how many are geniuses? We are usually satisfied with quite a bit less, but not in these matters. This applies even more rigorously if the subject of a musical comedy is a musical-comedy or similar performer; that invites invidious comparisons. What is most wanting in Oz is Peter Allen’s charisma, which burst forth like a nova; here, it fizzles, rather like a second-rate meteor straining to be a first-class comet.