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Jackman's wizardry saves 'Oz'

The actor makes maximum use of his considerable talent portraying Peter Allen in 'The Boy From Oz.'

October 17, 2003|Linda Winer | Newsday

NEW YORK — Does Hugh Jackman adore live performing as much as Peter Allen did, or is Jackman merely a terrific actor whose job here is to pretend to love -- we mean really love -- song-and-dance show biz? Either way, it's a win for anyone who wants to see one of the breakout leading-man musical debuts in recent Broadway memory -- and an object lesson in the limited but undeniable ability of big talent to distract from the labored wax-museum mediocrity of a show.

And how irresistible does Jackman have to be to make "The Boy From Oz," the Allen bio-musical that opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre, competitive in an unusually interesting and glitzy season? As irresistible as he is, but not a single rhinestone less.

This $8-million memory play steps into every cliche the form embraces and goes to more than the usual depths of necrology with fewer of such a tribute's quality songs.

On the other hand, the show has Hollywood's favorite sensitive-Australian hunk, who made his fortune quickly as the sensitive-mutant Wolverine in the "X-Men" films but was a musical-theater veteran back home. He never came to Broadway with his acclaimed Curly from London's "Oklahoma!," which means New York only saw that side of him in a one-night concert "Carousel" and as the strikingly easygoing host of the Tony Awards last spring. To mangle a beloved quote from the genre, in "Boy From Oz," Jackman goes out on that stage a star -- and comes back a different kind of star altogether.

We first see him at Allen's grand piano, a towel hung jauntily around his neck and all the glitter a tight blue shirt can bear. He shrugs his shoulders forward to the big, throbbing dance rhythms and sings some gushy, gobbledygook pseudo-serious lyrics, "All the Lives of Me," about how all the people who follow him are "everyone I ever was and everyone I ever will be."

Before we can think "huh?" the tall, lanky fellow with the lemony voice and the crooked, pointy face has peeled off the tight shirt to reveal a tighter shirt and has begun to devour the expanse of the stage with long-legged, blithe, gotta-dance style.

So here we have it, the rare triple-threat song-and-dance actor upon which Broadway has carved its image and made its dough.

The twist here is that Jackman, whose market is practically an action-figure heterosexual, is having a wonderful and entirely persuasive time playing Allen, the flamboyantly promiscuous, sexually versatile, Australian, gay icon who began in America as an opening act for Judy Garland, briefly and controversially married her daughter Liza, was the first man to dance with the Rockettes and died, at 48, of AIDS.

Ironically, although the opening number and several others sing about Allen's chameleonic quality, how he was the same and different from everyone else, a "man just like any other man, unlike any other man," the fellow here seems the same likable, comfortable, loving character he appears at the start. If Jackman's performance lacks anything, it is an ability to change his tangy -- occasionally pitch-wobbly -- voice into different colors and to wear different kinds of men as easily as he changes William Ivey Long's pitch-perfect costumes.

It is a relief to report that Jackman isn't trying to imitate Allen but rather to channel the exuberant sweetness of the man: wiggling butt, flouncy hands -- at times a bit more Tommy Tune than Allen -- but wonderfully done. Alas, Allen's other famous friends could have come from a diva-impersonator audition. In the case of Isabel Keating's Judy, the imitation is eerily fine, a neurasthenic woman with woodpecker hair and just the right combination of bitchy belter and lost child. In contrast, Stephanie J. Block, as Liza, strikes the occasional vocal inflection but, otherwise, seems to be playing Lorna Luft or Lucie Arnaz instead.

Of course, Martin Sherman's script, based on the Australian original by Nick Enright, gives the poor actress such doozies as "I am trying to have a career and be a wife! I don't have any role models!" This is the sort of showbiz bio in which the trajectory is never in doubt. The adult narrator flashes back to his hard childhood, this time, in the Australian redneck outback -- where he just, you know, didn't fit in -- and continues up the ladder and then down, this time because of illness.

Philip Wm. McKinley has staged the show with the usual narrator interruptions, and Joey McKneely has come up with enjoyably playful spins on genre dance. Robin Wagner's set smartly contrasts dark memory scenes with big, lovely, black-and-purple glitz, especially a penthouse view of Manhattan skylines and, finally, a grand piano-key stairway for the big "I Go to Rio."

We hate to speak ill of the dead, but Allen's cult-and-mainstream life and many of his songs just don't seem to deserve such a celebration. It is fun to hear "Waltzing Matilda" in Chinese and poignant to have Allen return, sick but still kicking, to sing "I Still Call Australia Home."

Jarrod Emick has little to do as the lover, except return as a saint for the unbearably treacly "I Honestly Love You." But Beth Fowler is dear as sweet, dowdy Mum in a housedress, and Mitchel David Federan, 11, is spectacular as the young Peter.

Jackman isn't the only star being born here.

Linda Winer is chief theater critic for Newsday, a Tribune company.

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