‘THE BOY FROM OZ’ KNOWS DOROTHY AND PETER ALLEN'S STORY IS MORE THAN JAZZ HANDS
The iconic Peter Allen was a true “Friend of Dorothy” as Judy Garland was one of his mentors and help create his star power. Theatre Rhinoceros production of THE BOY FROM OZ by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright, and featuring the music of Peter Allen is now on stage at the Rhino Gateway through Nov 17th. Directed by Rhino Artistic Director, John Fisher, he says “(Peter Allen’s) story becomes legend, enshrined in this musical with all its good will, unending energy, and spirit and hope. His life reflects the queer movement from coming out to finding acceptance to struggling with a horrifying disease, but his memory is only joyful.”
The Australian musical THE BOY FROM OZ is a vibrant and touching account of the life and music of Peter Allen. It had its world premiere at Sydney’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in March 1998 then moved to the West End. It became a smash hit that and ran for over two years on Broadway and played 10,000+ seat arenas. A Tony winner in 2004, it won Hugh Jackman a Best Actor Award. "Oz" is at best a classy jukebox musical with a handsome book by Martin Sherman based on an original script by Nick Enright. The two hour show includes a cornucopia of songs by Allen himself including “I Honestly Love You”, “I Go to Rio” and ”I Still Call Australia Home” are given a thrilling treatment in a show with sparkle.
We first meet Peter as a star-struck 9-year-old played by Max Wix and Cameron Zener in the small Outback town where he grew up. Both boys are excellent tap dancers and sing one of the opening songs “When I Get My Name in Lights”, as they both share the role. The boy Peter was bullied by his bitter father played by the accomplished Kim Larsen and cherished by his loving and loyal mother Marion is played by the marvelous Larissa Kelloway. She turned in a very powerful end to “Don't Cry Out Loud” Kelloway has a pitch perfect voice. The terrific Justin Genna plays the super star Peter Allen and his rendition of “Tenterfield Saddler”, “The Lives of Me”, “Love Crazy” and the classic “I Go To Rio” blends with all the other hits from this song book.
Later, Peter teams up with his friend Chris played by the keen John Charles Quimpo to create an act billed as the Allen Brothers. They achieve modest success in Australia until Peter attracts inconvenient notoriety due to a scandalous homosexual affair, and they find it advisable to seek employment in Hong Kong. There, by chance, their act is seen by Judy Garland played by the enthusiastic Leandra Ramm who recognizes Peter’s talent and takes him on as an opening act for her show. Ramm sings “All I Wanted Was the Dream” Liza’s intro to “I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love”, and Judy’s contribution to “Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage,” were show stopping.
When he meets Judy’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, played by the sizzling Carol Ann Walker, and defends her from Judy’s bullying, they hit it off, and are soon married. The two sing “I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love”. But the marriage is stormy because her career is taking off and his seems to be stuck. And though he seems to genuinely love her, he is, of course, gay, a fact brought home to Liza when she finds him in partying with other men. After three years, following Judy’s death and the Stonewall Rebellion which lead to Gay Rights and it partially inspired, they’re divorced. Yet somehow over the years they hold onto the bittersweet remains of their friendship.
A new manager and a new lover, Greg, played by the accomplished Justin Lopez join forces to get him booked into the Copacabana, he sings “Bi Coastal” and his career as a cabaret singer is launched. He goes from triumph to triumph untill it becomes apparent that Greg is dying of AIDS. The same affliction carries Peter off in 1992. Allen’s story is in many ways a grim tale, and on the face of it unlikely material for a musical comedy. But it’s enlivened by plenty of comedy, rich characters, solid performances, and of course all those Peter Allen songs. It may be an emotional roller-coaster, but Allen’s indomitable spirit shines through and the show ends in a positive high inspiring finale.
Director Fisher has cast the show impeccably, and deftly blends the touching human story with the show business razzmatazz. As Peter, Genna splendidly masters the role’s huge demands, from tap-dancing and singing “Waltzing Matilda” to belting out a huge array of songs, dancing in a kick-line with the Rockettes, and playing out emotionally demanding scenes. Kelloway as Peter’s mother is tactfully adoring, then gets her chance to shine just before the end. As Judy and Liza, Ramm and Walker go far beyond celebrity impersonation, creating solid characters and emphasizing their vulnerability as well as their show biz strength and brass. They are a believable mother-daughter team. John Thomas Hanson provides a wonderfully persuasive performance, with very few scenes, as Peter’s last and most important lover who saw him through the end.
The principals are backed up by a fine and versatile ensemble, including Suzylane Edwards, Grace Liu, the three on stage musicians Sheela Ramesh, Nick Martin and David Walker. The clever Kevin Hammond and Christina Lazo both provide the stylish choreography, including the Liza with a Z number “She Loves to Hear the Music”. Walker is jazz Fosse hands classic in the full company number. The skillful Sheela Ramesh provides expert musical direction with her on stage two musicians and elegant baby grand piano. Costumes by the gifted David F. Draper kept all of Peter’s Hawaiian shirts festive and the Judy/Liza look perfect with no camp. The set is simple so Drapers’ and SuzyJane Edwards’ costumes bring the show home. Bert van Aalsburg set has rich side panels that take us to an Australian farm and Liza with a Z with a flip of screen. Artist Clay David brings those side panel screens a keen stylized look that catches Colin Johnson’s light design. Stage manager and assistant Directors Stephanie Niemann and Joe Tally kept the small cast on cue and company dance numbers full of Peter’s bliss and class.
Director Fisher brings this production its deep nostalgia and charm, while keeping a firm grip on Allen's camp and charismatic persona for which he became famous. Along with all his classic pop songs over 25 numbers in this two act musical. The show is moving and the lead role has been played by legends, giving Justin Genna big tap shoes to fill, and it is as satisfying to see the work he's put in to do due justice to the memory of Allen. Next up at Theatre Rhino their NYE Bash with MEGABYTES THE MUSICAL by Morris Bobrow, Dec 31 at the Gateway. But in the mean time wear your best Hawaiian shirt and join Peter, Liza and Judy for a great night with THE BOY FROM OZ.
Theatre Rhinoceros presents
The Boy from Oz
by Nick Enright & Martin Sherman
Music and Lyrics by Peter Allen
Musical Direction by Sheela Ramesh
Choreography by Kevin Hammond and Christina Lazo
Directed by John Fisher
Closes Nov. 17, 2018
Running time 2 hours with one intermission
215 Jackson St., at Battery St. SF, CA 94111
Photos by Lauren Toub and David Wilson
The Boy From Oz features Bay Area Actors:
SuzyJane Edwards (Dee/Trio/Ensemble); Max Fischer (Young Peter - W/Th); Justin Genna* (Peter); Larissa Kelloway (Marion/Trio); John-Thomas Hanson (Stage Manager/Mark/Trio/ Ensemble); Kim Larsen (George/Dick/Announcer/Dealer/Ensemble); Grace Liu (Josie-Leslie/Girl/Trio/Rockette/Trio/Ensemble); Justin Lopez(Announcer/Trick/Greg/Trio/ Ensemble); John Charles Quimpo (Chris/Trio/Ensemble); Leandra Ramm* (Judy); Carol Walker (Liza); Cameron Zener (Young Peter - F/Sat).
David Draper (Costume Designer); John Fisher (Director); Kevin Hammond (Choreographer); Colin Johnson (Lighting Designer); Christina Lazo (Choreographer);Stephanie Rose Niemann (Ass’t. Director/Stage Manager); Sheela Ramesh (Music Director); Joe Tally (Ass’t. Director); Bert van Aalsburg (Scenic Design).