He may not have exactly been the ‘boy next door’ but he was surely something remarkable! In his time, Singer and Songwriter extraordinaire, “Peter Allen” blazed a tune-filled trail that few Artists have ever accomplished. Little wonder that in 2004 his story–“The Boy From OZ” made its way to America where it easily took Broadway by storm. Told through Allen’s many hit songs, this Tony Award-nominated stage ‘musical biography’ of an authentic Australian Icon (and Academy Award and multiple Grammy winning performer) commences with Peter’s birth in 1944, vibrantly recounting his undeniably extraordinary life through his humble beginnings down-under, on to his meteoric rise to fame as an international star—including his relationships with the legendary singing stars Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli (whom he married in 1967) then culminates with his tragic, untimely death from complications from AIDS in 1992. Now “The Celebration Theatre” in Los Angeles has at long last brought this stylish theatrical triumph “West” for the official debut that Southern California audiences have been eagerly awaiting for over a decade!
Featuring a book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright, the music is by Peter Allen himself–who also contributed most of the lyrics along with a number of his more noteworthy collaborators like Dean Pitchford, Christopher Cross, Michael Callen, Jeff Barry, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer-Sager. Sherman and Enright’s book hits all the right milestones in Allen’s life—leaving nothing overlooked or glossed over (they even acknowledge how the Stonewall riots were sparked when a memorial service for Judy Garland was disrupted by police!) It’s complex and charming; life affirming even as it recognizes life’s darker elements. What also makes it work so well is the fact that Allen truly wrote from the heart and many of the songs that were hits for other artists were drawn from his own real (and empathetically relatable) life experiences. Likewise, several of the songs featured were re-purposed from “Legs Diamond”–Allen’s one attempt at writing and starring in a traditional stage musical, which here prove especially effective. (There’s even an interpretation of the classic Australian “out-back’ anthem “Waltzing Matilda” in Mandarin Chinese!)
Directed by “The Celebration Theatre’s” Co-Artistic Director, Michael A. Shepperd, this West Coast premiere production is a more intimate re-staging than the Broadway version, but in many ways “The Celebration Theatre’s” smaller space is even more conducive in conveying the more intimate elements the story boasts. Shepperd keeps the action moving fairly well while slowing it down slightly to allow the more emotional moments (which are copious) to register full measure before revving things up again as appropriate. Indeed, given all the disparate and contrasting elements it contains, this is most decidedly NOT an easy show to direct, but he manages to balance them all wisely and effectively. When it comes to the more ‘larger than life” sequences (–and does this show ever feature some very larger than life characters) Janet Rosten’s choreography provides them their most superlative punctuation! Along with Assistant Choreographer Michael Quiett, her dances energetically and persuasively recall the times and situations. “Love Crazy”, a typical 50’s style teenage ode that occurs when “The Allen Brothers” (Peter and his performing partner “Chris Bell”) make their debut on Australia’s number one youth-oriented TV program is an outstanding example of her ability to mimic all those jivey adolescent ‘be-bop” moves of the early days of both Rock and Roll and television; “Don’t Wish Too Hard” features more than a passing nod at some of the footwork we all recall from “The Wizard of Oz”, while “She Loves To Hear The Music” furnishes a first-class homage to the great Bob Fosse. Then, right before the house-lights come up she finishes the proceedings with a mini-conga-line comprised of the brightly costumed cast who take to the stage for a quick rendition of Allen’s shamelessly ebullient “I Go To Rio”. Although at a glance this may strike some as a slightly ‘unconventional’ way to end a show containing more than a passing bit of gravitas, with a second look, comes the realization that it is entirely appropriate—after all, this is a celebration of Allen’s life and art—not a lamentation of his premature passing.
Andrew Bongiorno excels as “Peter Allen” and is on-stage practically the entire time—no small feat considering all he has to do while there! Happily, Bongiorno has a wonderful, genial stage presence (including a pitch-perfect Australian accent) that keeps us with him through all the ups and downs (or should that be ‘tops” and ‘bottoms” ) of Allen’s life. And oh, what an exquisite voice he has as he reveals the genuine person behind the gargantuan stage ‘persona’ starting with his vivacious opening “All The Lives Of Me” wherein we’re introduced to this man of many shades and many talents (“Such a lot of people–it’s almost a parade, and if you could see all the people, they’re everyone I ever was and everyone I ever will be!” he sings joyously.) As a restless teenager, Peter joined with another boy, “Chris” to form “The Allen Brothers” who swiftly became popular on the Aussie teen circuit; however, after an imprudent tryst with a local TV executive (“Discretion is such a waste of energy” he explains) more ‘out of town’ bookings were advised after that! Bongiorno also gives the Act One closer, “I Am Not The Boy Next Door” plenty of electricity—ending the act on a definite up note –particularly after a few more somber moments. Act Two opens with Allen now a bona fide, ‘Gold Lamé’ wearing nightclub sensation; (in recalling his opening at the World famous “Copa Cabana” nightclub, Allen observes “The audience was all in beautiful gowns, sequins and beads…the women dressed well too.”) His number indicating this monumental achievement, “Everything Old Is New Again” rates as a resounding showstopper, complete with a built-in encore and a kick-line (featuring one of the tallest chorines seen in recent memory!) By this time the 1970’s—not to mention the sexual revolution–are in full, unprotected swing and Peter has found a new main-squeeze in Male-Model turned Ad Exec, “Greg Connell”. This relationship spawns another brilliant and fiercely affecting vocal turn for Bongiorno titled “If You Were Wondering” while his concluding salvo, “Once Before I Go” is arguably his finest and most powerful.
Jessica Pennington dazzles as Liza Minnelli. When we first see her, she’s a girlish, not-yet-sure-of –herself (and very vulnerable) cross between Sally Bowles and Judy Jetson—but all fabulous! (This too is fitting, as at this point in his life Peter was just as unsure and fairly vulnerable himself.) Their courtship is depicted as they sing the Academy-Award winning theme to Liza’s career reviving hit film “Arthur”–better known as “The Moon And New York City”. Ms. Pennington’s giddy smile is enough to break your heart, and the pair’s “Come Save Me” –the first of several sensational musical moments the two share, is poignant and dramatic all in one and thrillingly showcases Ms. Pennington’s A-Plus voice as well. Calling his mother to tell her of his impending marriage to Minnelli, he tells her how she and Judy are already like family (“They’re like ‘The Waltons’—with sequins” he assures her.) Upon returning home from a movie shoot early, she catches him in the embrace of another man “Biology spoils things” she sadly utters “but we tried.” Subsequently, heartbreak is what you’ll feel with her bittersweet and expressive “I’d Rather Leave When I’m In Love” which sees Liza, now understanding who Peter is, finally saying goodbye to their life together. When she reappears in the second act, it’s a considerably more world-weary Liza that we’re all familiar with. Their shared “You And Me (We Wanted It All)” is yet another Gold-Medal worthy duet late in the second act and is itself an achingly forthright anthem to every lost, ‘should have been” relationship or missed chance for happiness life often throws at us. (“Look how all our dreams came true and see how I’ve got me and, baby, you’ve got you” she sings “and through it all, just one thing died, a little thing called love, a feeling deep inside,” they sing in still another example of just how masterful a lyricist Allen was at describing pure, intricate human emotions. As her famous mother “Judy Garland”, Bess Motta practically ‘channels’ this legendary lady offering a near-uncanny portrayal—the looks, the mannerisms, the sustained notes—they’re all there, and she gets some of the very best lines in the show too. “Did you hear about this new drink called Vodka?” she asks; “They can’t make enough of it—for me!” After meeting her and then-husband Mark Herron who catch the duo’s act when they’re booked in China, they ask her up on stage which gives rise to the jaunty “Only An Older Woman”—one of a handful of absolutely can’t miss numbers Motta amazes with “You need a mentor” she cautions her new protégé “—I need a drink!” Her additional warnings in the frenetic “Don’t Wish Too Hard” not only offer Ms. Motta still another opportunity to amaze us with her uncanny Garland representation, one also gets the distinct impression that, although the song is directed at Peter, it’s Judy’s life she’s essentially singing about. These cautions aside, instantly, “The Allen Brothers” are her opening act (or as Peter narrates “It was like going over the rainbow—in a barrel!”)
Young Michayla Brown is Peter aka little ten-year-old “Petey Woolnough” as a boy (who we’re informed, wanted to grow up in a Busby Berkley Musical.) Young Miss Brown actually does a remarkable job, enviably commanding the stage while displaying some snazzy moves and a clever way with a song (–and getting all the big laugh lines while doing it!) First appearing with a nifty little ‘challenge’ dance beside ‘his’ older self, which includes some simple pull-backs and other elementary tap moves before advancing on to a few graceful pirouettes and high kicks as part of her (“his”) dynamic “When I Get My Name In Lights” as “Petey” dreams of escaping his dreary life in his hometown of “Tenterfield” New South Wales. Kelly Lester as Peter’s quietly devoted ‘Mum”, “Marion Woolnough” also offers exceptional support. Initially she appears like the out-back’s answer to June Cleaver–but rest assured there’s far more beneath her seemingly plain domestic facade—and Ms. Lester skillfully makes certain we see it! She supplies some delightful if unexpected high-spiritedness with her own reprise of “Everything Old…” then, her 11 O’clock undertaking “Don’t Cry Out Loud” is very much worth waiting for—delivered with such raw intensity and conviction it’s practically devastating, adding extra insight into this woman and the deep inner-strength she had to see her through come what may. (In fact, these are the lyrics that could best sum up Allen’s entire life.) Michael Mittman as Peter’s ‘Significant Other’, “Greg Connell” is also terrific. “Ambiguity is a con” he asserts early in their relationship regarding Allen’s non-offensive brand (or bland) of sexuality; “no one wants to see someone sitting on a fence!” Greg was the first to get sick and their duet, “Love Don’t Need A Reason” as he articulates his uncertainties for the future is all the more heart-wrenching (“Do I have to spell it out for you?!” he laments; “I have AIDS!” This is followed by Peter’s melodic effort to reassure him; “Love don’t need a reason. Love’s never a crime, and love is all we have for now…what we don’t have is time.”) Later, “Greg’s” equally sincere handling of Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You”, sung as he’s a recently passed “memory”, to his beloved Peter who himself is getting sicker and sicker, is about as touching as theater gets. Marcus S. Daniel also makes his charismatic mark as “Chris Bell”–Peter’s first on-stage partner and the one who conjured up their collective ‘name’ after a long forgotten Vaudeville team.
Michael Mullen’s costumers are imaginative and anything but understated, ranging from red-velvet blazers as the guys are launching their career on “Australian Bandstand” to glittering silver and gold “go-go’ outfits (for which the word ‘eye-popping’ comes readily to mind) And oh yes, Allen’s trade-mark “Hawaiian shirts” are very much in evidence throughout (“Jesus! He looks like he plays Golf with Liberace!” his manager exclaims at one point) there’s even a slinky leopard print speedo Peter sports. Byron Batista’s Hair and Wig designs completes these illusions—whether it’s successfully turning a girl into a boy, an Actress into a Superstar or a Superstar into a Legend. Scenic Designer Yuri Okahana also deserves applause for transforming what is basically a smaller ‘black-box” type venue into a cozy little showroom—the likes of which Peter Allen was no doubt very familiar with during his career. This subtly makes it that much more realistic. Special accolades must also be given to the hard-working and always superb four piece band that accompany the action—again the kind of which would suitably be found in a Vegas showroom or upscale New York cabaret.
More than just your standard ‘Jukebox” musical, this is an incredible piece of stage virtuosity and “The Celebration Theatre’s” new production more than does it (and the man at its center) justice! After previewing April 22nd through Thursday, April 28th, “The Boy From OZ” opened on Friday, April 29th, where it is slated to play through Sunday, June 19th, 2016. Show-times are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM with Sunday matinees at 2: 00 PM at “The Celebration Theatre”, located at 6760 Lexington Blvd. in Los Angeles, California. Tickets and information may be obtained by phone at (323) 957-1884 or by logging onto “The Celebration Theatre’ website at: http://www.celebrationtheatre.com .
Production Stills By Casey Kringlen, Courtesy of David Elzer At Demand PR (www.demandpr.com) And “The Celebration Theatre”; Special Thanks To Michael A. Shepperd, Janet Rosten, David Elzer, Bryan Blaskie And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Celebration Theatre’s” West Coast Premiere Of “The Boy From OZ” For Making This Story Possible.