Tapping into the troubled life of that “Boy from Oz”
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Pride Films & Plays’ impressive Chicago premiere of “The Boy from Oz” – the jukebox musical about the life of Peter Allen, the Australian-born performer, Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter and sexual adventurer who was widely known for his connection to both Judy Garland and her daughter, Liza Minnelli – is the latest reminder of just how good this city’s smaller theater companies have become at producing Broadway musicals on an intimate scale.
In fact, this particular show benefits greatly from that intimacy, as well as from about two dozen of Allen’s own songs, and the neatly sketched biographical book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright that chronicles a show biz-obsessed man whose troubled early life led to a difficult and often unhappily hedonistic adulthood.
Expertly cast and directed by David Zak, the production features strong music direction by Robert Ollis (who leads the six-piece band perched above the stage), and a deft blend of old school tap and Bob Fosse flair by choreographer Cameron Turner. And throughout there is a subtle sense of the New York “scene” of the 1970s and ’80s.
‘The Boy from Oz’
When: Through Aug. 30
Where: Pride Films & Plays at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Info: (773) 327-5252;
Run time: 2 hours and
30 minutes with one intermission
First staged in Sydney, Australia in 1998 (barely six years after Allen, 48, had died of AIDS), it became a huge success as it toured Australia. It then arrived on Broadway in 2003, where Hugh Jackman, another “boy from Oz,” earned a Tony Award for his starry turn. Maybe even too starry.
The Chicago production features Chris Logan in the hugely demanding role. A wiry actor with fine song-and-dance skills, and chiseled features and dirty blonde hair that are a good match for Allen’s, he very cannily suggests the mix of insecurity, vulnerability and selfishness of the man he is playing. Logan is not afraid to let you dislike Allen at certain moments, even if you understand the reasons for his behavior.
The only son of an adoring and accepting mother, Marion (Michelle McKenzie-Voigt in a performance of depth, warmth and humor), and a cruel father (Brad Senffner), plagued by alcoholism after his return from World War II, Allen (played as a boy by Garrett Hershey) was fueled by “Busby Berkeley dreams” from an early age. He sang in pubs, then joined with Chris Bell (David Kaplinsky) as one of the “Allen Brothers,” and became a popular TV and cabaret act in early 1960s Australia.
While performing in Hong Kong, Allen was “discovered” by Mark Herron (Wade Tischhauser), Judy Garland’s husband at the time, and became her opening act in London and the United States. He also briefly became the “boy toy” of the unsteady, love-wounded Garland (ideally embodied, rather than imitated, by Nancy Hays).
Though clearly gay, Allen played both sides of the sexual coin, and was quickly drawn to the young, big-eyed Minnelli (and the family celebrity). No surprise the two clicked; both were emotionally needy and had a surplus of talent and ambition. Though they were married for seven years, Allen went off with men while Minnelli (in a very real and winningly light-up-the stage performance by Michelle Lauto), went off and became a superstar. Finally she could no longer abide the betrayals.
As it happens, Allen, who was never really in the closet, fell under the spell of Greg (an excellent turn by Luke Meierdiercks), a male model from Texas who became his lover and artistic aide, and eventually oversaw his mega-success at Radio City Music hall and beyond. Greg was the first of the two to die of AIDS; it would take another six years for the disease to catch up with Allen.
Katie-Bell Springmann’s set says a great deal with little more than a curving “stairway to paradise,” and John Nasca’s costumes pay glittery homage to designer Bob Mackie (for Liza), and to Allen’s flashy, largely unbuttoned disco shirts.
Allen made few apologies for his life or lifestyle. He just kept tapping down that yellow brick road, courting success and attention, and eventually getting it. In some sense he was both of his era and ahead of it.