Quiet please, there’s a gentleman on stage.
The art of impersonation for the entertainer is to imitate the appearance, the voice, and the manner of their subject – truly the hardest acting role leaving itself wide open for judgement and comparison to the original. In the last month, Melbourne has seen the television premiere of bio series “Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door”, and the announcement of Australia’s second boy from Oz, Hugh Jackman’s 2015 Australia tour, both of which this reviewer has either watched (and cried uncontrollably), and has tickets to for the next month.
As a performer/choreographer/producer, the chance to attend and review the opening night performance of Babirra’s The Boy From Oz, came with high expectations, as this musical is a true and honest personal favourite, celebrating the life of one incredible Australian from his humble beginnings through to his ultimate stardom. The Boy From Oz has enjoyed constant success from the original Gale Edwards’ production, which gave Todd McKenney his starring vehicle, to Hugh Jackman on Broadway, through to the recent 2010 Production Company’s season at the Arts Centre.
Directed by Chris Bradtke, Babirra’s musical focuses around the life of Australian singer/song writer Peter Allen (Jonathan Guthrie-Jones) and is presented in the style of a concert as he works the audience with his energetic, glamorous, chatty and fabulous persona and performs his greatest hits. Throughout the “concert”, the audience is taken back to segments of the late Allen’s life that made him the performer and success he was, and still is today. These segment’s include: his upbringing in Tenterfield and Armidale featuring his mother Marion Woolnough (Gabrielle O’Brien); meeting his own star vehicle Judy Garland (Adrienne George) and future wife Liza Minnelli (Melanie Ott); the highs and lows of the performing arts mixed with marriage; the AIDs epidemic of the 80’s-90’s; and finding the love of his life Greg Connell (Shaun Kingma) and ultimately, finding himself.
Between the concert and flashback scenes the direction (by Chris Bradtke) and musical direction (by Danny Forward) complemented each as other as they captured the essence and magic that was Allen’s life proving that he was the ultimate natural born performer.
I take my hat off to Guthrie-Jones who embraced the role with dedication and effort in achieving the voice, mannerisms, and art that is Allen. At times during Act One, I found him to be a tad nervous, but I’m putting that down to opening night jitters as he won me over in Act Two with his renditions of “I Still Call Australia Home” and “Tenterfield Saddler”. One constructive criticism noted for him would be to have more fun with his “ad-lib” or improvisation. If a scripted line doesn’t work ie: “oh we have some late comers” – there wasn’t – possibly something different ie: “My God Melbourne, not one late comer? Never heard of fashionably late?. Simply have fun and embrace that fabulous flamboyance and remember that Allen sets the pace of the show, not the audience. We, as the audience, are there for the ride. We did embrace him on the night and will for the whole season.
Aside from Guthrie-Jones, the one performer that truly stole my heart (and the show) was Gabrielle O’Brien who portrayed Allen’s mother Marion. Simply put, she had the nurturing, positive, supportive, warm, motherly role down pat whereby I forgot it was an actress portraying a role – a natural performer who positively stole my attention every time she entered on stage. The icing on the cake for her role was her vocal rendition in Act Two of “Don’t Cry Out Loud” which had me in tears. Her performance made me feel like I knew her, and meeting her after the show (as I ran up to the poor woman at the entrance outside the foyer) was a true honour. Well done, darl, well done.
Vocally pleasing performances from both George (Garland), and Ott (Minnelli), who portrayed mother and daughter well. George’s shining number was “I’ve Been Taught By Experts” as she stood on a platform guiding Allen through to the next chapter of his life. Just listening to the tone and pitch of her voice during this particular number, she had nailed the infamous voice of Garland. Ott was light and fun as Minnelli. When she sauntered on stage in Act Two, fur coat draped over her shoulders, singing “Arthur’s Theme” she won me over with the simple line of “Hi, I’m Liza” and then nailed the famous performer’s laugh.
Honourable mentions to other stand out performers included; Caleb Waterworth (Young Peter Allen), Jayne Murphy (ensemble), Aryna Pavlovych (ensemble), Cameron O’Reilly (ensemble), Jake Remmington (ensemble), and Tailem Tynan (ensemble).
The choreography of the show was well crafted and cleverly executed by Louisa Mitchell, including high energy ensemble numbers, 60’s MOD, 60’s bandstand, Bob Fosse tributes, showgirl numbers and, of course, a hint of Rio. The costume and set department complemented these numbers throughout – with flamboyant, frivolous outfits and pieces appropriate for the lead, his dancers, and the era. The ensemble were enjoyable to watch in their choreography, but could be a tad sharper with their execution of movement.
Between the neon lights, disco balls, lit up piano, smoke, and colour, I felt I had stepped into a favourite gay bar – in other words, the lighting design was as camp as Christmas and I loved it! Sound, at times, had its moments between the odd off stage voice, a mic that was missed for one performer during dialogue, or the trio’s microphones being a tad too high. But that is simply opening night teething issues. All in all though, this is purely constructive criticism that will hopefully be taken on board to simply enhance the rest of the already sold out season. And if an odd sound problem is the biggest issue, well, Babirra is on a good wicket.
Well done to Owen Davies, president of Babirra Music Theatre, on a thoroughly enjoyable, light hearted musical tribute to the icon that is Peter Allen. Overall, thank you to the cast and crew for nailing “I Still Call Australia Home”, an incredibly poignant and special number to everyone on and off the stage.
Well done and wishing you all the most fabulousness for the rest of the season!