Los Angeles Theater Review: THE BOY FROM OZ (Celebration Theater)

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by Paul Birchall on May 1, 2016

in Theater-Los Angeles


What makes this boisterous jukebox musical about the life of late music and stage legend Peter Allen (whose songs make up the show’s core) so winning, is the combination of larger-than-life excess and the piquant whiff of melancholy – all of which are frankly irresistible to a wide swath of showtune-loving patrons. Director Michael Shepperd’s production for the Celebration Theatre is frankly an example of L.A. 99-Seat Theater orchestrating at its most talented and versatile, taking a show that was meant to be performed in a large house — with dozens of showgirls backing up the stars — and then scaling it down almost to its essence while still keeping its scope vital and alive.

Jessica Pennington and Andrew Bongiorno star in the CELEBRATION THEATRE's West Coast premiere of THE BOY FROM OZ

The Boy From Oz is a wonderful treat for young audiences as well as those whose memories go back to the original 2003 Broadway production with Hugh Jackman. Opening night at Lex Theatre, the audience was peppered with veteran theater critics of the octogenarian era, a couple of whom were heard arguing about which of them saw (the real) Judy Garland first. “By cracky,” one major bloggist opined, “I remember seeing Liza at the first show when she called herself ‘Liza with a Z’.”  The other replied, “I remember seeing Judy at one of her last concerts.  I sat in the front row and she spat on me.”

The fetching show opens in backwater Tenterfield, Australia, as young Peter Allen (played as a child by Michayla Brown) dreams of becoming a star and famous. After winning a song night at a pub, Allen (as a young man and mature adult he’s portrayed with fresh faced charm in Andrew Bongiarno’s affable turn) forms a band that becomes a sensation in Australia – that is, until an ill-advised affair with a male music producer forces Allen to go international.

Andrew Bongiorno and Michael Mittman star in the CELEBRATION THEATRE's West Coast premiere of THE BOY FROM OZ

It is while singing in a bar in Hong Kong that Allen has a fateful meeting with a legend – the elderly and now fading Judy Garland (Bess Motta), who invites him to become her opening act in New York. Nothing shady about that. But soon Allen meets Garland’s daughter Liza Minelli (Jessica Pennington), and their brief marriage becomes the stuff of tabloids and TV movies. After Allen comes out and becomes a huge star, he is cut down in the AIDS epidemic, dying in 1992.

Andrew Bongiorno and Marcus S. Daniel star in the CELEBRATION THEATRE's West Coast premiere of THE BOY FROM OZ

Shepperd’s production of Martin Sherman and Nick Enright’s sprawling biography works well because it is unafraid to milk not just the sentimental sensibility of seeing Garland and Minnelli on stage again but also the wistfulness over the excesses of the 70s and 80s. Indeed, Peter Allen’s story is the veritable history of late 20th-century glitter, which is depicted with surprising innocence and charm here. It is also the story of unbridled drive, as Bongiarno’s ferociously perky Allen is almost disturbing in his desperate zeal to become a star – to the extent that Motta’s gloriously world-weary Garland, upon fending off Allen’s advances, notes, “You should learn to butter your ambitions.”

Andrew Bongiorno and Bess Motta star in the CELEBRATION THEATRE's West Coast premiere of THE BOY FROM OZ

Bryan Blaskie’s music direction is crisp and driven by sheer adrenaline: You feel weak just watching the energy that is expended by the sheer locomotive force of Bongiorno’s smoothly genial performance propelling the show onward.  Choreographer Janet Roston’s production numbers are pleasingly lavish, nicely keyed to the tiny stage. They range from Motta and Bongiorno’s drolly cynical sugar mommy turn, “Only an Older Woman” to Pennington’s luscious Bob Fosse-like sleaze-fest “She Loves to Hear the Music” and the surprisingly Las Vegas-styled farewell anthem “I Go to Rio.”

The mood is oddly and pleasingly redolent of variety shows from the 1970s, as befits Allen’s melodies, which are so deliciously retro, they’re vices unto themselves. But the show is also incredibly intimate – perhaps more intimate in feeling and sensibility than a Broadway production would be. Also splendid are Michael Mullen’s marvelous costumes, which seem to have stepped right out of the pages of Vogue 60 (mod and wild) and 70 (yuck). Particularly noteworthy are the frocks worn by Pennington’s Liza, which are terrifyingly accurate and ridiculous.

Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Shanta' Marie Robinson, Chelsea Martin and Andrew Bongiorno in the CELEBRATION THEATRE's West Coast premiere of THE BOY FROM OZ

Bongiorno boasts great personality and charm as Allen, and captures the sense of a boy with huge talents, but who lacks an ability to look past the surface of things. As Liza, Pennington perfectly conveys the wide-eyed, bipolar, and borderline mad nature of the superstar’s personality. Motta’s wonderful turn as the disentranced, bitter Garland is the show’s true standout, amazingly showcasing someone who really only exists on stage, and is diminished and slight otherwise.

photos by Casey Kringlen

The Boy From Oz
Celebration Theatre
Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2
ends on June 19, 2016 EXTENDED to August 21, 2016
for tickets, call 323.957.1884 or visit Celebration

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