The Boy from Oz

Songs by Peter Allenthe_boy_from_oz_

Book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright

Directed by David Zak

Produced by Pride Films & Plays

Playing at Stage 773, Chicago

Pride’s Tribute Combines Intimacy With Glamor

The Boy from Oz, a jukebox musical and memory play about songwriter Peter Allen, debuted in his native Australia in 1998 and ran on Broadway with Hugh Jackman in the leading role in 2003. And yet, it is only now getting its first production in Chicago (though there was a production in Memphis earlier this year). Of course, it makes sense that Pride Films and Plays founder David Zak would want to use his company, which is dedicated to telling the stories of LGBT people, to showcase the theatrical talent of a gay man who was, for a time, Judy Garland’s son-in-law. But this musical, with eighteen actors, six musicians, and frequent costume changes, is also an unusually large and complex endeavor for Pride, which usually performs in the downstairs of the Apollo theatre, and whose last three productions had much smaller casts. It is a pleasure, then, to see how Zak’s company has risen to the occasion, with talent and production values as fine as any Equity production, in the larger but still intimate Stage 773. Fans of Allen’s era, who may know him only as a peripheral figure, will be swept away by nostalgia as they hear songs that were covered by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Olivia Newton-John, and others will have a fine introduction to him (and Garland and Liza Minnelli).

Chris Logan as Peter Allen. Photos by Paul Goyette.
Chris Logan as Peter Allen. Photos by Paul Goyette.

Allen is played by Chris Logan, who narrates his life’s story. He was born in 1944 in the small town of Tenterfield, New South Wales, and always knew he was different. He was flamboyant, and loved singing and dancing (as a child, he is played by Garrett Hershey), like the silver screen actresses he idolized. Though his mother was supportive, his father was an alcoholic who resented his son’s lack of machismo, and never accepted him—even Allen doesn’t care about this, as he abruptly fast-forwards to his teenage years, when he was ready to begin his career. The way he tells it, going professional was surprisingly easy. He and Chris Bell (David Kaplinsky) formed a duo called The Allen Brothers, and toured successfully until Allen kissed the wrong person and told, getting them blackballed and exiled to Hong Kong.

terleftandDavidKaplinskyandtheensembleofTheBoyFromOz2It was there that Allen overheard Judy Garland (Nancy Hays) complaining one day, and struck up a friendship with her. Impressed by his charm and talent, she brought him to New York City to be her opening act, where he met her daughter, Liza Minnelli (Michelle Lauto). Tragically mistaking his platonic love for her with romance, Allen married Minnelli, and their relationship fell apart as she often came home to find party guests scurrying, coke on the mirror, and a man in Allen’s bed. His career continued for a while, but faded following Garland’s death and his divorce, leaving him to reinvent himself with the aid of a new lover, Gregory Connell (Luke Meirerdiercks). But even after his professional revival, his struggles were far from over.

Michelle McKenzie-Voight and Garrett Hershey
Michelle McKenzie-Voight and Garrett Hershey

Allen’s music covered a wide variety of genres, from classical Broadway (“Everything Old is New Again”) to disco (“Don’t Wish Too Hard”). Therefore, the musical direction by Robert Ollis of a live band is an improvement over some of Allen’s later recordings, and the sound mixing (Kallie Noelle Rolison) is at such a fine balance that the band is always energetic, but does not drown out the singers, even on the opening night, when there was an apparent microphone mishap. Chris Logan is a lithe, charismatic, smooth voiced Peter Allen, and is especially effective at conveying the moods of Allen’s slower songs, like “Love Don’t Need a Reason.” As part of Martin Sherman’s Americanization of the book, Garland’s role was expanded, and Nancy Hays, besides bearing a striking resemblance to the real Garland, sings with the nervous, but defiant belting she is remembered for. The same is true of Lauto’s Minnelli, and David Kaplinsky and Luke Meierdiercks, in supporting roles, are fun, musically adept, and nuanced in their acting enough to hold their own against the more famous figures.

Zak has also arrayed an impressive ensemble, and enlisted choreographer Cameron Turner for show stoppers inspired by their historical Fosse counterparts. John Nasca has designed several sequin-studded costumes for each performer, besides Allen’s Hawaiian shirts, which help to create the world of Allen’s memory, and are a treat in Stage 773’s intimate space. Nick Enright’s book is far from perfect; a lot of dialogue, particularly early on, is stilted and awkward. However, it presents Peter Allen as a complex, ambitious person, which was the part of the show I found the most interesting. That he had a solid career but died relatively young and did not become the icon he aspired to be provides Logan with material for a rich performance, and playgoers with a drama independent of their familiarity with Allen’s music. While I’m sure fans of the era need no encouragement to see The Boy from Oz, it is on the basis of Allen’s personal journey that I recommend the show to a broader audience. That, and because Pride Films and Plays has done an excellent job breaking into larger productions.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed August 7, 2015

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see The Boy from Oz’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Stage 773, 1225 W Belmont Ave, Chicago. Tickets are $25 with discounts for seniors; to order, call 773-327-5252 or visit pridefilmsandplays.com. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 5:00 pm through August 30. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.

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