Chicago Theater Review: THE BOY FROM OZ (Pride Films and Plays at Stage 773)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: THE BOY FROM OZ (Pride Films and Plays at Stage 773)

by Lawrence Bommer on August 8, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

RISING UP FROM DOWN UNDER

23 years ago, mega-entertainer Peter Allen died of AIDS. But The Boy from Oz is the story of a survivor. The self-made star refused to be stifled by the Australian country town of Tenterfield or a drunk, suicidal dad. Encouraged by an unconditionally loving mom, the gay, blond singer-composer moved from an auspicious debut on the Aussies’ American Bandstand to hoofing in a “brothers” double act to performing at the Hong Kong Hilton Hotel–where he met Judy Garland, patron saint of soulful suffering and lost boys.

Oz-4ChrisLogan(left)andLukeMeierdiercks(2)A tough-loving mentor, the divine Miss G introduced a gaga Allen to the lights of New York. There, continuing the family tradition of marrying the wrong sexual orientation, daughter Liza wed, then divorced Allen so he could love a lunkable Texan. Greg became his manager, then died of AIDS. Before Allen returned to his roots (“I Still Call Australia Home”) to succumb to sickness, the happy warrior wowed crowds at the Copacabana, Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall (happy to merge with his beloved Rockettes), and Sydney Concert Stage. He also suffered a spectacular flop in a musical biography of Chicago mobster “Legs” Diamond. Prolonging his popularity, Allen memorably wrote hits–the Oscar-winning “Anthem” from Arthur, “Everything Old Is New Again,” “Quiet, Please, There’s a Lady Onstage” (homage to Judy), “I Honestly Love You,” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud.”

Oz-5MichelleMcKenzie-VoigtandGarrettHershey(2)All this explains why Peter Allen earned in advance this 140-minute bio-musical. The Boy from Oz (a Broadway vehicle for Hugh Jackman) features–and honors–Allen’s songbook and, with Martin (Bent) Sherman and Nick Enright’s sprightly book, his lavender life and roller-coaster career. Now at the North Side’s Stage 773, it’s a rich, rollicking Chicago premiere from Pride Films and Plays.

Whatever their original intentions, Allen’s supple tunes and buoyant lyrics perfectly reflect his showbiz-savvy saga. They also deliver a crash course in pop music from doo wop to lounge standards to disco to bravura production numbers. It starts appropriately with Chris Logan crooning his character’s credo “All the Lives of Me.” It ends, not chronicling one more casualty of a continuing plague (“I already miss everything that hasn’t happened yet”)–but in samba splendor–“Rio,” the musical love child of Carmen Miranda and Barry Manilow. (First you come out, years later you “Go out in a Hawaiian shirt!”)

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True to his non-negotiable talents, artistic director David Zak finds the right player-singers, some Fosse-fierce, tap-dancing moves (from choreographer Cameron Turner), omnicompetent musical direction (Robert Ollis), storybook sets (Katie-Bell Springmann), time-traveling costumes (John Nasca), and a context-crazed video design (G. “Max” Maxin IV).

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Chris Logan brings heartfelt immediacy to Allen’s final, anguished valedictory ballad “Once Before I Go” and precise pizzazz to such novelty numbers as “The Continental American,” “Sure Thing, Baby” and the self-promoting “Bi-Coastal” (which leaves out his other situational “bi”). No gay icon, Allen was as fallible as famous (especially as he’s groomed not to be gay). He really was “stuck between planets” and “going over a rainbow in a barrel,” one reason he testifies that “Discretion is such a waste.” As his younger self, 13-year-old Garrett Hershey is as sweet as his name.

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Galvanic support comes from cabaret star Nancy Hays as a wonderfully convincing Judy Garland: Her hair-trigger vulnerability (“All I Wanted Was The Dream”) exposes the edge to every emotion. (Her stewardship was never more sardonic than in the glibly grandiloquent “Only an Older Woman.”) Equally inspired in more than impersonation, Michelle Lauto’s Liza Minnelli is a big-eyed wonderer whose love-seeking (“Come Save Me”) is heart-breaking. (Allen described mother and daughter as “the Waltons with sequins.”) David Kaplinsky partners well as Chris Bell, Peter’s “brother.” Luke Meierdiercks incarnates devotion as Peter’s much-tested, good ole boyfriend Greg.

Peter Allen loved to live–especially on stage: Grateful audiences will never wonder why.

Oz indeed.

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Oz-6MichelleLautoandChrisLoganinTheBoyFromOz(2)photos by Paul Goyette

The Boy From Oz
Pride Films and Plays
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave
Wed – Sat at 7:30; Sun at 5
ends on August 30, 2015
for tickets, call 773.327.5252
or visit www.stage773.com
for more info,
visit www.pridefilmsandplays.com

for more info on Chicago Theater,
visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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