Entertainment » Theatre

The Boy From Oz

by Harker Jones
Tuesday May 3, 2016
Andrew Bongiorno (center) stars as Peter Allen
Andrew Bongiorno (center) stars as Peter Allen  

While Peter Allen didn't make a huge splash here in the States as a recording artist, his songwriting skills produced some of the most iconic songs of the '70s and '80s, and his personal life was as colorful as his personality, both of which make for a fantastic jukebox musical.

Born Peter Woolnough in a small town in New South Wales, Australia, to an alcoholic father and a repressed mother (Kelly Lester), Allen (Andrew Bongiorno), while performing with a friend, lucked into a run-in with Judy Garland (Bess Motta), which led to his moving to New York to be her opening act. That's also where and how he met Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli (Jessica Pennington), to whom he was married for seven years while his career as a singer struggled and hers hit the stratosphere. That put the strain on their relationship, of course, but the fact that he was homosexual was what broke that camel's back.

"The Boy From Oz" takes us from his backwater hometown to the swinging '60s in New York through the harrowing AIDS crisis in the '80s, while he finds love, heartbreak, and himself.

We've seen rags-to-riches stories before, but the energy in "Oz" never flags under director Michael A. Shepperd's guidance. Choreographer Janet Roston makes fantastic use of quite a small stage. You can hardly believe there's space for song and dance numbers, let alone with the entire cast AND the four-person band, but Roston makes it work, and it doesn't even look cramped.

Bongiorno can sing and dance, and he looks fantastic in sequins. (There are SO MANY Sequins. The wardrobe is stunning, courtesy costume designer Michael Mullen.)

There's something likable about Bongiorno and that helps him sell both his vulnerability as well as his confidence in a role that won Hugh Jackman a Tony on Broadway.

Michayla Brown, who plays Allen as a child, is a magnetic dynamo. It's likely only a matter of time before she has her own show. Lester has the resigned countenance of minor royalty a la Kristin Scott Thomas, and she really shines when her character comes into her own later in the play with a musical number of her own.

Motta and Pennington tasked with bringing a groundedness to two of the most flamboyant performers of the 20th century, conduct themselves well. They channel the musical legends but never descend into caricature. Motta, in particular, has a thin line to walk because her Garland isn't cast in the warmest of lights -- she's insecure, angry, jealous and manipulative.

Despite his only stateside hit, "Fly Away," stalling at #55, Allen had a successful career in both cabaret and concerts. He was the first male to ever dance with the Rockettes. He had sold-out engagements at Radio City Music Hall. And he won an Oscar for co-writing "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" from the comedy "Arthur."

He was a prolific songwriter, writing or co-writing all of the 27 songs performed in "Oz," including the #1 hit "I Honestly Love You" made famous by Olivia Newton-John, "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love" which Rita Coolidge took to the Top 40, and Melissa Manchester's signature tune "Don't Cry Out Loud." And while those are powerful in context, some of the lesser-known songs have just as much power. "Come Save Me" is an electrifying duet between Peter and Liza, and "Like Any Other Man" is a sexy duet between Peter and the love of his life, Greg.

"The Boy From Oz" is flashy and sometimes silly but it's also moving and heartfelt, and with musical material as strong as Allen's and a cast to bring his story to life, it's worth the trip to "Oz."

"The Boy From Oz" runs through June 19 at the Celebration Theatre, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90038. For tickets or information, call 323-957-1884 or visit CelebrationTheatre.com.


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