Friday, November 2, 2018

"The Boy from Oz"

The Boy from Oz
Martin Sherman & Nick Enright (Book); Peter Allen (Music & Lyrics)

Justin Gellen & Justin Lopez
One of the most memorable performances that I have ever seen on Broadway was from the second row, reveling in Hugh Jackman’s performance as Peter Allen in the 2003 The Boy from Oz – a role that won him that year’s Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical.  This jukebox musical – much like many others in the past twenty-five years on the Great White Way – features both the up-and-down life story and a hit-after-hit compilation of the artist’s songs.   In this case, the audience gets to revel in the songs Peter Allen both performed on cabaret stages and wrote for other singers like Olivia Newton-John and Melissa Manchester – songs like “I Go to Rio,” “Best You Can Do,” “Not the Boy Next Door,” and “I Still Call Australia Home.” 

With its own Peter Allen who boasts a bold, sparkling, and contagiously attractive personality, Theatre Rhinoceros presents a choreographically charged The Boy from Oz on the small, Gateway Theatre stage.  Brimming big time fun, the audience is reeled into a compelling story that includes Judy, Liza, and a boy from Down Under finally finding his one true love in another boy named Greg.

Cameron Zener and Justin Genna
We first meet Peter Allen in his favorite Hawaiian shirt as he sings in a soft, reflective voice about “The Lives of Me,” with Justin Genna capturing just enough of those distinctive, Peter Allen, Australian vocals to perk audience attention.  When his young twelve-ish self appears (a light-on-his-feet Max Wix, alternating the role with Cameron Zener), the two tap an impressive “When I Get My Name in Lights,” mimicking and then mirroring the moves of the other, eventually enthusiastically joined by an ensemble of onlookers from a hometown bar where Young Peter once sang as a youth.  The choreography designed by Kevin Hammond immediately makes its mark and continues to win applause and approval throughout the rest of the show.

As Peter, Justin Genna moves with flair and fling, swiveling his hips enough to spin anyone’s imagination and always with a smile that elicits other smiles.  His dancing with high, long-legged kicks and moves that are smooth and sexy is often dazzling – whether if he is on stage alone, in duets, or with a full cast.  While his initial softly sung number really works, unfortunately Mr. Genna’s Peter too often sings at a volume level of three or four out of ten, rarely able to belt his voice to match the intensity of his acting or dancing (especially noticeable in big numbers like “I Still Call Australia Home” and “I Go to Rio.”) 

John Charles "JC" Quimpo & Justin Genna
Even though he and other leads have obvious mikes attached to their costumes – something he repeatedly has to undo and do with some distraction – there is no noticeable amplification of their voices in the theatre.  This becomes quite a problem in many numbers as the onstage, musical ensemble of three instruments drowns out the lyrics being sung (including those at times sung by the full ensemble).  This is initially and especially true when Peter meets his long-time, singing partner, Chris Bell (John-Charles “JC” Quimpo) and as they – now known as the Allen Brothers – sing with great energy and wonderful choreography, “Love Crazy,” only for many of the lyrics to be completely lost to guitar and piano.

Justin Genna & Leandra Ramm
But the lack of amplification is not a problem for all the cast.  When Peter meets Judy Garland in a Hong Kong bar and convinces her that he should be her opening act, Leandra Ramm proves the attached mike is not at all needed as she lifts her Garland-like vibrato and sings with exceptionally deep resonance “All I Wanted Was the Dream.”  Her end-of-song, sustained crescendos do not disappoint Judy fans in the audience; and neither does her swagger or ruby red lips that pucker and protrude as she talks.  Ms. Ramm is the evening’s star, as particularly seen when she vibrates in a warning voice edging on full anger, “Don’t Wish Too Hard,” when she tries to convince her daughter Liza not to marry Peter (given the many rumors of his being gay).

Carol Ann Walker & Ensemble
As Liza, Carol Ann Walker brings less of the obvious parallels to the real Liza than Ms. Ramm brings to her Judy; but she is convincing as the woman who falls for this excessively exuberant Peter with his wandering eyes toward cute men.  Ms. Walker sings with vocals pleasing and attractive (but also not strong enough at times to win the battle with the background ensemble).  She is particularly impressive in sparkling, glittering attire as she is joined by a full ensemble – they dressed in black suites and bowlers  -- as well-executed Fosse hands and moves define “She Loves to Hear the Music.”  When she and Peter sing a moving “You and Me” after she comes to console him once he has AIDS, they each score their best-sung number of the night that comes across with lyrics understood and a quieter accompaniment.

We also meet Peter’s long-term partner, Greg, expressively played by Justin Lopez, who scores one of the evening’s best numbers when he sings his pitch-perfect, emotionally solid “I Honestly Love You.”  He and Peter are a couple that swoons hearts and then breaks hearts, as each is struck by AIDS.  Their duet “Love Don’t Need a Reason” is moving but unbalanced in quality as Mr. Lopez out-performs the efforts of Mr. Genna in the needed volume and ability to stay on key to ensure a total win.

Throughout Peter’s life, his mother, Marion, is a constant support and friend.  Their loving and mutually admiring relationship is an important thread throughout the musical’s book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright.  As Marion, Larissa Kelloway has the right mixture of a mother’s ‘you-can-do-no-wrong’ and of a mother-as-best-friend spot-on advice and counsel.  When she sings “Don’t Cry Out Loud” as her son tries to muster the courage to tell her about his AIDS, Ms. Kelloway delivers another of the evening’s best-sung numbers with a voice capturing the love and anguish of a mother who knows all without a word needing to be spoken.

Much of the fun and delight of The Rhino’s production is due to the many costumes bursting in fabulousness and flash, all designed by David F. Draper.  Colin Johnson’s lighting design contrasts spotlighted moments of quiet contemplation and the full-on pizzazz of big-number stage shows.  Director John Fisher never lets the wide-spectrum of Peter Allen’s life become confusing or linger too long on any one aspect, with scenes that change in location and timing blended seamlessly one to the other.

The energy and enthusiasm of this entire cast along with a few outstanding, memorable voices and consistently electricly-charge choreography make Theatre Rhinoceros’ The Boy from Oz a journey worth taking.  If the sound imbalance problems can be solved and the starring lead given some amplification help when he sings, the result could be a sure-fire winner.

Rating: 3.5 E

The Boy from Oz continues through November 17, 2018 in production by Theatre Rhinoceros at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photo Credits: David Wilson

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