In RTP’s “The Boy From Oz,” everything old is not new again
Read More: Anna Grey Hogan, Barry Pruitt, Brandon McKinney, Chris Hester, D. Mark Souza, Frank Foster, Grey Garrett, Jeannie Rule, Justin Amellio, Kim Fox, Luke Newsome, Michael Jarrett, Richmond Triangle Players, The Boy from Oz
The Boy From Oz is a jukebox musical based on the life of Peter Allen. “Oz” being shorthand for Australia (not somewhere over the rainbow) where Allen was from. He was a cabaret singer who was discovered by Judy Garland playing a club in Hong Kong. “Oz” in the title must be a double entendre since he is a Judy Garland protégé and Australians use “Aussie” not “Ozzie.”
Judy Garland brought Peter Allen to America to be her opening act. She introduced him to her daughter Liza. He was very fond of Liza. Just not in that way. In that way, he was fonder of men. He married Liza anyway. Wouldn’t accuse him of star grazing. Neither does the play.
Peter Allen was the composer of many popular 80’s songs such as the theme from the movie Arthur (“When You Caught Between the Moon and New York City”) for which he won an Academy Award. He also wrote Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You,” and Melissa Manchester’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” He himself had hits with “I Go to Rio” and “Everything Old Is New Again.”
Naturally, the play The Boy From Oz takes place in the 1980s with all the glitz and fabulous fashion the decade made famous. Many of these jarring design elements can be seen on the Richmond Triangle Players stage in their production.
The costumes by D. Mark Souza are hideously delightful. We are feted with loud prints of clashing, unflattering colors and lines on Miss Minnelli, garish sparkles and spangles on the chorus boys and girls and also on Mr. Allen and black chic on Miss Garland.
The set design by Frank Foster is Art Deco with four revolving columns lighted from within. Mr. Foster works very nicely with lighting designer Michael Jarrett to create flashing lights, colored backdrops, cityscapes and disco ball euphoria (one remnant of that era not much missed).
Though pretty well trapped in the design, colors and fabrics of another era, the performances are immediate and fresh.
The women steal the show. A bit odd since the play is the semi-autobiographical journey of a man.
As Peter Allen, Chris Hester works his heart out but at the end of the show, he is no match for his fabulous female co-stars.
The structure of the show is a sand trap if the leading man cannot top the charisma of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli and Jeannie Rule as Peter’s Aussie Momma. All three characters are so strong that the man in the middle can get sucked down the vortex of estrogen.
Mr. Hester does not exactly fail. His Peter Allen is spunky, driven, charming, vulnerable and tragic. He does not, however dig deep enough into the energy of the man. Hester’s likeable portrayal skims the outer layers of Mr. Allen’s persona but does not find the spark that made the man insanely watchable.
Part of what is missing is the broad versatility of the man. Mr. Hester sings well but not dynamically. He cuts the long notes off well before they have resolved. He dances passably but not as well as the chorus around him nor as well as the younger version of himself (played this night a little too cutesy by Brandon McKinney) which is slightly jarring when they are hoofing it side by side.
In his acting performance, which is dominated by his narration, Mr. Hester seems a bit uncomfortable. I suspect the direction hampers him since during the show a storm raged outside and the RTP lights went down. In the dark Mr. Hester created brilliant comedic dialogue extemporaneously in character. It was that spark and ease the written dialogue lacked.
I mention the direction because a major aspect of any director’s job is as co-creator of a performance, especially true when it’s a biographical show. Here Director Justin Amellio and Mr. Hester never found the right dynamic for Mr. Hester’s performance.
The performance that could have been a train wreck was Grey Garrett’s portrayal of Judy Garland. One of the major Gay icons of all time, men, women and clowns try to impersonate the great diva all the time and often bizarrely, twitching and grasping the air as if Dame Judy were an epileptic. Ms. Garland gave these wannabe’s plenty of ammunition by being so outrageously physical in her delivery.
Ms. Garrett takes the neurotic Garland and filters her through a prism of pain and vain glory. She lowers her vocal register successfully to give less an imitation and more an interpretation of the Garland style. She contains Garland’s over emoting to a minimum (the final number when she appears as a ghost is a bit over the top but it’s the exception). She straddles the fine line between character and camp and does so with authority and class. A wonderful performance.
Anna Grey Hogan succeeds only slightly less well than Ms. Garrett. Her Liza Minelli was more natural but perhaps less familiar. Ms. Minnelli is a lesser Gay icon than her mother but still meaningful enough for thousands of ridiculous impersonations. With her it’s still the gestures, but more so the thick New York/faux cultured accent Ms. Minnelli affects.
Ms. Hogan brings a calm to Ms. Minnelli’s characteristic neuroses that are actually very refreshing. It’s less showy. A wise directorial choice since two divas on one stage is one diva too many. Ms. Hogan has a lovely singing voice and adds measurably to the vocal score.
Her role, however is written poorly, as is most of the script. There is no depth to the Allen-Minnelli relationship or any relationship. His abusive father is a caricature. Time frames are chronologically toyed with. The structure ends up being little more than webbing holding the songs together.
The songs are all Mr. Allen’s compositions and the attempt to make them fit his biography feels forced. They’re all lovely but perhaps not the greatest expressions of the dramatic action, what little there was.
The supporting cast was a mixed bag.
Jeannie Rule gave the best acting performance of the evening as Peter Allen’s loving mother. When she takes the solo stage to sing “Don’t Cry Out Loud” she melts the audience to a puddle. She didn’t do much. She didn’t have to. What makes a great singer is a great actor singing.
Luke Newsome played Peter Allen’s lover Greg Connell a bit unevenly. The script doesn’t help him at all reducing him to either a supportive “anybody” or the “anybody” lover who gets sick first. The unevenness prevents any lock on character that might have been. He smiles a lot which always looks wrong onstage. It contains no depth. Mr. Newsome is a fine actor who gets no help from his script or his director.
Barry Pruitt plays several parts of older men. A badly wigged alcoholic father and a screeching overbearing manager in a fabulous all white suit. Mr. Pruitt generally lacked subtlety and blasted many of his lines.
The chorus/dancers did a fine job although I did not like the choreography. Working with limited space, Director/choreographer Amellio had almost too much motion putting his crew through swirling patterns that were dizzying. It might be they needed more rehearsal but I noticed several dancers often checking for the correct spacing as if unsure everyone was in the correct positions.
Kim Fox led a spirited, tight musical ensemble that never faltered. Or if they did, they covered it very well. I was especially taken with Ms. Fox’s fine keyboards and the multitalented Susan Davis on Saxophone, clarinet and flute.
Credit to Mr. Amellio for keeping a nice tight rein on the pacing of the scenes. The direction and choreography did have a recognizable game plan that held up very nicely. The flow however was continually marred by the movement of the piano. While I wish he had gotten better performances out of his men, in his defense the script is stacked with iconic woman and difficult, troubled, complex men.
Finding the truth to these characters isn’t easy. Talk of dynamics of a play is all tied into the charisma and audience connection factor with the main character(s) as he/she is affected by events and each supporting character. Directing is a master’s art. If anyone could do it, they would.
Richmond Triangle Players has become an iconic theatre venue for the Richmond theatre going community. By the very nature of its mission statement they present the gamut of theatrical styles from Camp to shocking realism. The honest presentation of the LGBT experience is what they strive for. The Boy From Oz is certainly in this wheelhouse but appeals more to the camp Broadway musical babies out there and less to the serious exploration of a life. In this instance, everything old is not new again.
The Boy From Oz runs now through July 16th at Richmond Triangle Players Theatre, you can scoop tickets here!
Have a few cups of spiked eggnog and get over to RTP.November 29, 2016
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