It's little wonder that no theater until Dallas' Uptown Players has attempted the bio-musical The Boy from Oz in the decade since it closed its run on Broadway. Hugh Jackman won a Tony in that Broadway production, starring as its flamboyant title character, bisexual Australian singer-songwriter-showman Peter Allen. When Jackman's contract ran out in 2004, they didn't even try to replace him. No regional company has staged it till now.
Here's why: The Boy from Oz not only requires a star who can believably play Allen, Aussie accent, wiggly butt and all, but one who can also carry the show as its affable narrator, belt 16 big songs, pound the piano (a bit) and tap dance. The show also calls for a sing-alike and lookalike Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, the ladies who were, at one point in Allen's life, his mother-in-law and wife. It also needs a "young Peter," a boy around 10 who can sing like a pro and dance like a little Astaire.
What's remarkable about Uptown Players' Oz, now running at Kalita Humphreys Theater and far and away the glitziest, giddiest, most exuberant musical of the summer, is how spectacularly well its actors, all local, nail these difficult roles. Director Cheryl Denson, Dallas theater's best at staging and revivifying complicated musicals, has found performers, including a kid, so talented and uncannily right they could hit the road tomorrow on a national tour. (There never was one for The Boy from Oz. Too hard to cast.)
In the lead, Alex Ross physically resembles Peter Allen more than Jackman did (Ross has the height, wide forehead and devilish twinkle for it), with the added bonus of some of Jackman's handsome he-man heft. And boy, can he sing. At the end of the second-act ballad "Once Before I Go," Ross hits the last note and holds it. And holds it. And holds it. Not as a stunt. As an expression of the character's desperation. (Allen was dying of AIDS-related cancer during his last concerts in Australia shortly before his death in 1992 at age 48.) It's just one of many wow moments in a two-hour-and-45-minute performance that never lets up a galloping pace.
As Judy Garland, Janelle Lutz wobbles and warbles just like the real deal and, thanks to wig and makeup wizardry by Coy Covington, and '60s-period costumes by Suzi Cranford, she looks just like the older Judy too. Sarah Elizabeth Smith mimics daughter Liza's breathy giggle and slurry "S"s and then out-sings the real-life Liza by remaining firmly on-pitch on "She Loves to Hear the Music," a quick "concert" sequence with some nifty hip-thrusting Fosse moves by choreographer Jeremy Dumont. (Dancing is crazy-good throughout. Musical director Scott A. Eckert's seven-piece backstage band is crisp but a little muffled soundwise.)
Impossibly adorable Westin Brown brings down the house early as the munchkin-sized Peter Allen, tapping across a bar as Peter did growing up in rural Australia, and singing like a tiny Al Jolson. You'd swear Brown had been dancing since he was in diapers, but he learned to tap for Oz in only a month and a half, according to Dumont. He's a natural.
The show is heavy on tapping but light on the darker details of Allen's complicated relationships. Structured as a glossy flashback, The Boy from Oz hints at a chaotic home life (Peter's dad, played by Sonny Franks, commits suicide, thankfully offstage) and then jumps forward into Allen's career as a pop musician. "The glamorous stuff," he calls it as he introduces Jersey Boys-style glimpses at scenes from his teens and 20s as a star with his onetime singing partner (an excellent Thomas Renner) on Australian TV shows.
Martin Charnin's book for this musical (based on the original Australian production's script by the late Nick Enright) has all the literary depth of a fan magazine profile but he does work in some zingers. Calling home to his mum (played by Jodi Wright), Peter Allen describes Judy and Liza, his new family, as "like the Waltons with sequins." And when he complains to his famous mum-in-law that he had a difficult childhood, she snaps, "You say that with a straight face to Judy Garland?"
Straight, he wasn't. Peter Allen's fluid sexuality is treated lightheartedly. By the second act, he's divorced Liza and come out of the closet, wrists flapping like panties on a clothesline. His Texan lover Greg (Kyle Montgomery, also a strong singer) pushes him to perform in bigger venues and suddenly Allen's kicking with the Rockettes at Radio City (achieved at Kalita with a cute visual gimmick by scenic designer Rodney Dobbs), selling out Carnegie Hall and sharing an Oscar for the love theme from the movie Arthur.
The musical's 24 scenes weave some of Allen's better songs into the story line. "Quiet, Please, There's a Lady on Stage" is delivered as his tribute to the dead Judy Garland. "I Honestly Love You," a hit in the 1970s for Olivia Newton-John, is sung by the ghost of boyfriend Greg.
If that all sounds like formulaic, saccharine musical biography, that's exactly all it is. What elevates The Boy from Oz at Uptown is the high-voltage performance of Alex Ross, who is every inch the charismatic showman Jackman was. Ross started his acting career here just five years ago in Uptown's production of The History Boys. He's since done plays and musicals at Dallas Theater Center and Lyric Stage. Oz is his biggest star turn yet. He'll have plenty more after this.
Great way to end a season, Uptown Players, with an audience on its feet, cheering and whooping as Ross' Peter Allen happy-dances atop a grand piano to "I Go to Rio." That is how you stop a show.