Brisbane Arts Theatre’s first main stage production for 2016 is The Boy From Oz, a musical about the life and music of Australia’s Peter Allen.
Directors John Boyce and Ruby Foster have made some very interesting choices with respect to modifying the script and song list. While changing the opening of Act One from “Not the Boy Next Door” to the Broadway opener of “All The Lives of Me” can perhaps be understood, it is less clear why the reprise of “Not the Boy Next Door” was removed as an upbeat Act One finale, only to be replaced with the ballad “The More I See You”– particularly when ones considers that the latter song was written by Harry Warren of 42nd Street fame. Certainly, it was sung and recorded by Peter Allen, but in a show that features songs which Allen wrote (or at the least had a hand in writing), it was somewhat out of place.
The duo have staged The Boy from Oz on a bare stage with only a baby grand on a plinth, and other props (bar, upright piano, etc.) brought on to indicate a scene’s location. Blocking is simple and services the story very well. During “Tenterfield Saddler”, images of Peter’s grandfather, mother and father were silhouetted on an upstage screen as their parts of the story were told. It was a lovely device, and it would have made sense to continue with its use throughout the song, rather than bring the “girl with an interesting face” (Liza) on stage for her verse – her silhouette would have been easily recognisable from her opening pose in “The Lives of Me”.
Sharing the duties of choreographer are Sarah Jane Jones and Jess Page. Jones and Page created dance moves that suited the abilities of the cast, and for the most part, the ensemble of dancers executed the moves well, aside from some occasional issues with being out of sync. The big dance number of the evening, “Everything Old Is New Again” needs to be slick and polished, as anything less than that would not reflect the Rockettes of Radio City, New York. The moves in this number need to have more precision than the ensemble presented, and the formations need to be more symmetrical.
It is an unusual situation to have the musical director also as a member of the onstage cast, but Lara Boyle has successfully done just that. Her thorough preparation of the choral work is evident, as is the time and effort that has gone into working with the quartet to create a beautiful balance. Faron Swingler led the 9-piece band from his keyboard, and the musicians played well as a unit. Unfortunately, some sound issues hampered the efforts of Boyle, Swingler, the cast, and the band. More than once, the singers could not be heard over the orchestra, and at one point, only harmonized ‘aahs’ were audible from the singers and the sung melody line disappeared altogether. With such an extended season, it is hoped that these issues will be addressed.
The minimal set is well lit by Geoff Squires’ lighting design. Use of the cyclorama for gobo patterns was a great effect to add to the mood of a song. The focus of certain lights seemed a little out of place (for example, during “Somebody’s Angel, one member of the quartet was drowned in yellow light, while the other three girls were not), and actors were walking through patches of darkness at times for no good reason.
Michelle Peloe’s costume design was a delight to behold. Each ensemble number had the cast appearing in a different outfit and their combined wardrobe created a great picture. The black and white outfits for “Pretty Keen Teen” were a highlight, as were the “Rio” outfits. More than once, Toft’s shirts became untucked as he progressed through various songs and dance moves – definitely a shame during “Everything Old is New Again” as the smooth body line created by the cummerbund was lost. Oh, and a quick note to cast members wearing body mics – please, wear the battery pack for your mic in a mic belt under your shirt. For the audience to see the wire for your mic run from the waist of your pants and down into your pants pocket screams ‘amateur’, and shows a lack of care in your personal presentation.
It is always a challenge when playing a character that was a real person, someone who once actually existed. The Boy From Oz includes the larger than life personalities of Peter Allen, Judy Garland, and Liza Minelli. The key question for any director is whether to have the actors mimic the vocal and physical traits of the historical figure, or to have the actors give their representation of the character on the page and steer clear of imitations. It was pleasing to see the three key players create their own interpretations of these celebrities.
In the central role of Peter Allen, William Toft carries the show with confidence and charm. His singing is resonant and consistent throughout, with his triumph of the evening coming in “Love Don’t Need A Reason” – a display of heartbreaking emotion coupled with beautifully shaped phrasing. While Toft’s dancing may not be his strong point, the enthusiasm with which he threw himself into the choreography more than made up for the modicum of missing technique. On top of a remarkable performance as Allen, Toft also plays piano very well for a couple of the show’s numbers…quite the talent.
Lara Boyle gave Judy Garland the right combination of sardonic wit and inner turmoil. Boyle used a suitably dark vocal tone for Garland, and was very smart to re-write the melody line for her character in a couple of places, so as to not lose any projection to any notes that may have been too low. Her rapport with Peter was delightful to watch, as she played encourager and devil’s advocate for him.
We first see Liza Minelli at a time in her life when she was yet to become a household name, and she was still living in the shadow of her mother. Hannah Kassulke’s Liza starts as a girl who is uncertain of who she is, and grows into a woman who knew just what she wanted. Kassulke’s singing and dancing was assured and on point, but overall, her performance needs to lift so that we as an audience can be left in no doubt as to Liza’s confidence once she comes into her own.
Brady Burchill was a powerhouse as Young Peter. His precision tap dancing and clear, confident singing helped portray the precocious but sensitive boy who would grow up to be national treasure. Burchill most certainly has a bright future in front of him.
For this production of The Boy from Oz, the trio has evolved into a quartet. Julie Beard, Liana Hanson, Marianne Henriksen, and Katie Routson all blend very well vocally, and they capably joined the dancer’s ensemble for the big production numbers. It is a pity that amendments to the script meant that much of the onstage banter between Peter and the girls was lost, so we had little sense of the working relationships they shared.
Nathan Hollingworth took on the dual role of Chris Allen and Greg Connell. In the key role Greg, Peter Allen’s long time partner, Hollingworth showed charm, cheek, and vulnerability. His chemistry with Toft was palpable, and certainly added to the heartache felt by the audience upon Greg’s death. Aside from the Australian accent for Chris and the Amercian accent for Greg, the two performances did not differ a great deal – attention to the physicalities of each character would certainly help to contrast these two personalities.
In the important, supporting roles of Peter’s parents, Sally Daly and Thom Gregg gave us well-drawn characters who were easily relatable. As Marion Woolnough, Daly was a warm and loving mother, always willing to support Peter through everything life would throw at him. Her instructions to Peter as he left for Hong Kong were delivered with motherly concern and a dollop of cheek – “Don’t drink the water”. Gregg’s Dick Woolnough was gruff, abrasive, and weak of character, such was the effect of Dick’s abuse of alcohol. The scene just before his death is a credit to Gregg, Daly and Burchill, as the actors held the tension very well, and had the audience holding its collective breath.
The supporting cast of singers and dancers worked well together, and produced a solid, cohesive sound. There were moments when the ensemble pulled focus – dancers out of sync with each other, one person constantly moving during “I Still Call Australia Home” when the rest of the cast were standing still with a fixed gaze.
Brisbane Arts Theatre’s The Boy From Oz is a fabulous night at the theatre. With such a long season, some of the roles have been double cast, but William Toft is the one and the only Peter Allen. So no matter which performance you attend, you can be sure to enjoy the incredible talents of this lead player.
The Boy From Oz runs until April 23rd.
Tickets can be purchased by visiting http://www.artstheatre.com.au