Rohan Browne deservedly Gets His Name In Lights as he takes centre stage in this spectacular new production of much loved Australian musical The Boy from Oz.
Celebrating both their own 20th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the original production of The Boy from Oz, The Production Company is presenting a whopping 17 performances of the warmly nostalgic, decidedly upbeat musical. Given that the company’s early seasons were a scant three nights long, this growth is remarkable. This confidence is reflected in the lavish scale of production, with creative elements at a level of achievement that completely belies the much-chronicled short rehearsal season.
As with his canny production of Brigadoon last year, director Jason Langley reinvigorates The Boy from Ozwhile still respecting the original material. Peter Allen’s catchy, personal, emotional songs are golden, and Nick Enright’s book is arguably the most succinct, creative and entertaining ever written for a bio-musical.
Framed around reminiscences at an indeterminate Peter Allen concert, the show is essentially a fantasia on the life of the outlandish Australian entertainer. Langley pushes the conceit further with some postscript interpolations for today’s audience.
Gone is the rather twee Qantas-themed number on the steps of Sydney Opera House for iconic anthem “I Still Call Australia Home;” in its place is a multi-national representation of the world’s people who now call Australia home, simultaneously singing the song and performing it in sign language. Allen’s iconic Australian flag shirt is now backed with the Australian Aboriginal flag. Did this happen in Allen’s lifetime? No. Is it conceivably something he would have embraced? One can only imagine that the answer is a resounding yes.
Similarly, climactic showstopper “I Go To Rio” is embraced as a Pride anthem, sung by white-winged angels bearing rainbow flags.
In Langley’s capable hands, the Peter Allen concert setting remains clear throughout the night. If any storytelling moments are rather brisk, well, that just Allen’s style. The Over the Rainbow take on Allen’s life also plays strongly, especially with international musical theatre star Caroline O’Connor making a welcome Australian appearance as Judy Garland.
Complementing the intelligent direction from Langley is terrific musical direction from Michael Tyack and world class choreography from Michael Ralph. Tyack leads eleven musicians (playing some 22 instruments!) in an expertly realised performance of the hit-studded score.
Ralph utterly defies the short rehearsal period, achieving incredible levels of sophistication in his choreography. Dancers work hard for Ralph, and he makes the most of this large, skillful ensemble to spectacular effect. Making brilliant use of the expansive space, Ralph nimbly switches styles, from peachy 1960s teenybopper in “Pretty Keen Teen” to Fosse-esque Studio 54 in Liza Minnelli’s “Sure Thing Baby” to fabulous Rockettes in “When Everything Old is New Again.”
Set designer Christina Smith works closely and graciously with lighting designer Trent Suidgeest, delivering a setting that is basically all lights. Eight thin rear vertical strands of lights are an artistic installation, creating an extensive variety of looks for the wide range of locations. The stage is flanked by mighty walls of stage lights, and even Smith’s glossy staircase is internally lit, allowing each step to light up, in a range of colours, as characters ascend to the heavens. The spectacular lighting is a significant aspect of the production, and shows Suidgeest at his confident, creative best.
Giving the role everything, and yet never out of breath nor raising a drop of sweat, super-fit star Browne is in his element as Allen. The role is a massive one, and yet Browne is never less than entirely magnanimous to his co-stars, beaming with joy at all manner of collaboration as the story progresses. Browne’s flair for dance is well utilised, and he sings the multitude of songs with ease. If there is an aspect that has room to develop as the season progresses, it is in Browne’s portrayal of the arc of Allen’s life; perhaps it is the fact that the story keeps coming back to the same concert, but his acting levels are a bit similar throughout each scene at present. With much to enjoy in Browne’s career-topping performance, this is a relatively small aspect.
O’Connor is in superb form as Garland, tottering about with aching vulnerability tinged with unshakeable showbiz style. Having played Garland before elsewhere, O’Connor immerses herself in the role, masterfully channeling the great star’s persona while avoiding any hint of a caricature. The role of a mentor is a charming one for O’Connor in this production; when she and Brown take flight in “Only An Older Woman,” the result is magical.
Replacing an indisposed Matthew Manahan during the rehearsal period, emerging leading man Maxwell Simon makes the kind of impact that brings to mind the young(er) Amy Lehpamer in The Production Company’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels back in 2009*. As sultry Texan Greg Connell, Simon establishes a strong character with little stage time. While the scene of Greg’s revelation of his AIDS status is rather rushed, Simon’s subsequent performance of “I Honestly Love You” is an absolute standout.
Loren Hunter matches O’Connor’s acting style in terms of capturing the essence of Liza’s Minnelli’s bubbly personality without any degree of exaggeration. A terrific dancer, Hunter shines as Liza emerges from her mother’s shadow to blossom from awkward teen to iconic superstar.
Robyn Arthur brings lashings of warmth and heart to Allen’s dear mother Marion Woolnough. Earning a spontaneous round of applause for Marion’s hardy acceptance of her son’s homosexuality, Arthur goes on to bring a tear to many an eye with “Don’t Cry Out Loud.”
On opening night, Hudson Sharp played Young Peter with prodigious polish and pizzazz.
Special mention to Belinda Hanne Reid, who earns a warm round of exit applause for her delicious delivery as worldly Valerie Anthony, talent-spotting wife of Allen’s agent.
The Boy from Oz is a celebration of Australian spirit. If you think you have already seen the show, think again.
The Boy from Oz plays at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 26 August 2018.
*While I am unable to link to my 2009 review of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, here is an excerpt: “The most exciting discovery of the night is Lehpamer. With a sensational voice that truly filled the State Theatre, Lehpamer made a massive impact with her acting singing and dancing (she is also a brilliant violinist!) and will surely be seen in further lead roles. Kudos must also go to Hodgman for the having the wisdom to elevate Lehpamer in the cast when the role of Christine became available. What a masterstroke.”
Footnote: Broadway had Lunt and Fontanne, and Melbourne is currently served by two such couples. While Browne goes to Rio in The Boy From Oz, over in another theatre in the same building his wife Christie Whelan Browne stars in An Ideal Husband. Whelan Browne’s co-star in An Ideal Husband is Simon Gleeson, whose wife Natalie O’Donnell stars in Mamma Mia! in Melbourne’s East End theatre district. Bravi!
Photos: Jeff Busby