There is no more fitting a celebration for a triple 20 year anniversary: for the show The Boy From Oz, for The Production Company and for Rohan Browne’s professional debut. The 2018 season of The Boy From Oz is everything: cheeky, heartfelt, endlessly energetic, and a serious force to be reckoned with – the show is near flawless and tickets should be snatched up immediately.
The jukebox musical based on Peter Allen’s life, complete with his songs and Nick Enright’s book, tells the story of Allen’s hunger and drive for fame, his hard work, his wit and humour, the supportiveness of the people around him, and most of all, his tenacity and persistence.
The show unfolds in a concert style. A backdrop of lights like a starry sky, ever changing colours in long LED strip lights, rock show style side lighting, and cleverly placed spot lights to turn Browne into a disco ball in one of the sequined jackets – the lighting design by Trent Suidgeest is ambitious, bold and perfect.
Director Jason Langley has put brave, bold new strokes into the show, with the inclusion of pride flags and a whole lot of rainbow. He has brought to life Enright’s book which capitalizes on Allen’s jokes, charm and comedic timing, and the show unfolds in a ‘Night with Peter Allen’ style concert, with the intimacy of a performer unveiling their story, paired with breaking the traditional fourth wall, with Browne addressing the audience, riling them up for applause, introducing the stage manager, commenting on costume changes, stage craft and more – it’s a fresh take on the show and it pays off. Langley attributes his strong relationship with Nick Enright, who wrote the book, and that he has tried to bring more of Enright’s original vision to the stage, resulting in a fresh, but not too linear story telling, which is fun, has the audience both in tears and roaring with laughter, and tapping their toes along to the familiar music. While the AIDS aspect may have been greatly played down, the keen focus on Allen’s relationships with his spirit and mentor Judy Garland, and his heart and partner Greg Connell creates a heartfelt, warm and honest performance filled with joy, pain, and love.
Langley has worked closely with Michael Tyack, whose band of eleven never misses a beat and who has reinvented pieces of music to suit the new, modern version of the show. ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ becomes an anthem to be proud of, no longer a piece of branding but a piece of hope and pride, with people after the show mentioning how emotional they were during it – the song is now complete with flags from all around the world on the cast’s shirts, and Australian Sign Language accompanying the entire song. Not to be missed is the inclusion of the Aboriginal Flag on the back of Allen’s legendary Australian shirt, and the flag created in lights along the back of the stage – a respectful (though overdue) inclusion.
Browne has nailed the sultry, sexy, cheeky element to Allen, his famous dance moves, unique Australian drawl with that hint of American accent on a few words, his jokes and comic timing – Browne shines non-stop throughout the performances. His ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ is heartbreaking, his ‘I Go To Rio’ is a party starter, and his ‘Boy Next Door’ is the coming of age, breakthrough and unveiling of Allen’s true self. It’s honest, intelligent, endearing and authentic, and a phenomenal reflection of Browne’s career, from beginning in the chorus of the original show 20 years ago to rising to be one of Australia’s most formidable and talented leading men.
Caroline O’Connor is sublime – she returns from Broadway and dazzles with real old time Broadway glamour and sass as Judy Garland, embracing her struggles, her mental health, her talented and wisdom all in one and delivering a shockingly accurate performance.
Each member of the cast has summoned the essence of their real life characters and delivered them so delicately, respectfully and powerfully. In her TPC debut, Loren Hunter dazzles as Liza Minelli, with a huge voice and the boisterous Minnelli twang.
Maxwell Simon is a touching and tender Greg Connell, Allen’s partner.
Baylie Carson, Josie Lane, and Phoenix Mendoza completely slay every number as Allen’s back up singers divas. Robyn Arthur is a steadfast thread of love and support throughout the show as Allen’s mother, Marion Woolnough.
Michael Ralph’s choreography is breath taking, complete with a cast of strong dancers who completely fill the State Theatre stage. With Browne almost never stopping dancing or racing around the place, the beautiful back up singing grooves of the diva trio, and the classic movie musical theatre grace of Brown and O’Connor during ‘Only an Older Woman’ has elements of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and silver screen elegance and charm – there are so many dance highlights in this show.
A show stealing number, ‘Everything Old Is New Again’ is complete with a Rockettes chorus line so good they do it twice (my hope is the more you cheer for these amazing moves, the more times they might delight you with them!)
Tim Chappel’s costumes are a sparkly heaven, and Christina Smith’s simple but effective set really cement the quality and attention to detail of this production. The set, with it’s bold, light up stair case centre piece which introduces so many characters, and shows the watching down from above when they have passed, or continuing to haunt Allen, adds so many different levels (literally and artistically) to the show.
But like many shows that are pulled together this quickly, and like Oklahoma before it, they’re still working through levels and sound issues, with mic cues being missed and mics on when they shouldn’t be, on opening night. During the opening few numbers the band drowned out the cast, and while this did improve, it’s always disappointing to see technical issues in such a high quality professional production.
I wish touring was part of The Production Company’s model, because I strongly believe that not only is this show ready to tour Australia, but should, so that so many more can delight in this unique, heartfelt story telling of an Australian icon, and witness some of Australia’s best talent light up the stage. Do not miss The Boy From Oz in it’s limited season until 26th August at the Arts Centre Melbourne – it’s worth every penny. I’ve run out of adjectives trying to describe the brilliance of the show and the feeling it left me with after seeing it – hope, joy, respect, pride. I’m going to try and go again!
More info and tickets: http://www.theproductioncompany.com.au/boyfromoz/
Photo credit: Jeff Busby