The Boy From Oz

The Boy From Oz
Music & Lyrics: Peter Allen. Book: Nick Enright. Director & Choreographer: Rhylee Nowell. Musical Director: Alexandra Byrne. Presented by Theatrical & Andrew Gyopar. National Theatre, Melbourne. July 6-21, 2024.

Following the hugely successful season of The Sound of Music, Theatrical presents this true story about one of Australia's most beloved entertainers. If Peter Allen was alive today, he'd be around the same age as his close friends and musical contemporaries Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. Allen may have left this world over three decades ago, but his influence and impact continue to resonate through the enduring popularity of his extensive repertoire of songs. 'I Honestly Love You', 'Arthur's Theme (The Best that You Can Do)’ and 'I Still Call Australia Home' are just as popular today as when they were first penned. Adapted from Allen’s 1996 biography The Boy from Oz by Stephen MacLean, the musical includes songs that traverse through different time periods, creating a nostalgic journey within the vibrant atmosphere of one of Allen's electrifying performances. The original 1998 production garnered six Green Room Awards. Todd McKenney and Hugh Jackman have both previously played the lead role to critical acclaim on a global scale, earning ‘Best Male Actor in a Musical’ Helpmann and Tony Awards respectively.

Rhylee Nowell, a seasoned professional with over four decades of experience in theatre, dance and live performance, has fearlessly taken on a significant challenge in her dual role as Director and Choreographer. Nevertheless, she has triumphantly delivered a top-tier production overflowing with elements of drama, comedy, sophistication, excitement, and exceptional solo and ensemble performances. This marks Nowell’s third time at the helm of The Boy from Oz, and I doubt it will be her last! 

Kudos to the 14-piece orchestra, under the capable baton of Musical Director Alexandra Byrne, who delivered a stellar performance of this challenging production! Special mention to the brass section and the superb guitar solo by Ben Dewhirst during 'I'd Rather Leave While I'm In Love'. The orchestra’s presence on stage during the finale was truly remarkable, showcasing their well-deserved moment in the limelight after all their hard work!

Choreography by Rhylee Nowell and assistant Ellie Martin captures the spirit of Peter Allen’s performances and reflects his journey from humble beginnings to international stardom. The group performances are impactful, dynamic, and the dancers consistently embody their roles. Standout numbers include ‘Pretty Keen Teen’ (evoking a Hairspray vibe), ‘Sure Thing Baby’ and 'Legs Diamond medley' (think Bob Fosse), ‘When Everything Old is New Again’ (showcasing the high-energy Rockettes with their signature smiles and high kicks), and the infectious finale featuring Peter Allen’s classic hit ‘I Go to Rio’. Karen Spencer’s costume designs perfectly encapsulate the essence of the 1970s and 1980s, enhancing the energetic and flamboyant performances with their vivid aesthetics. The costumes for Allen are a reflection of the different phases of his life and career, including Hawaiian shirts, glittering ensembles, his iconic Australian flag shirt, and ‘I Go to Rio’ outfit. The designs for Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, as well as the Trio, are sophisticated and glamorous. The ensemble’s attire undergoes frequent changes, adding an abundance of spectacle, colour, and vibrancy to the show.

Abbey Stanway’s versatile and vibrant stage designs feature a proscenium arch resembling a grand piano (a feature of Allen’s ‘Up Front’ concert in Sydney 1980). Stepped arches reminiscent of the Art Deco design of the Radio City Music Hall stage (designed to look like the sunrise) provide an entryway for grand entrances and exits, as well as hiding the onstage orchestra. Additionally, a white grand piano (performed live by Matthew Hadgraft), stage stairs ingeniously designed to mimic piano keys, and a backdrop of twinkling lights throughout the Rockettes floorshow, help contribute to a feeling of elegance and conjure up the atmosphere of a ‘Peter Allen in Concert’ experience. Lighting Designer Max Woods and Sound Designer Nick Reich each contribute significantly to the success of this production by bringing it to life through their creative vision and technical expertise.

The casting for this production couldn't be better! Accomplished singer and musician Matthew Hadgraft has a rich history with The Boy from Oz. Hadgraft initially portrayed the character of Allen in 2010, transitioned to the role of Musical Director in 2018, and has now assumed the lead role again, all under the direction of Rhylee Nowell. His performance is nothing short of sensational! His conversations with the crowd, humorous remarks, gestures, idiosyncrasies, and dance moves perfectly emulate Allen. His portrayal is so natural and unaffected that it's challenging to distinguish between what is scripted and what is improvised. Hadgraft's performance gives you the sensation of embarking on a nostalgic journey personally led by Peter Allen himself. While each song was a standout in itself; 'When Everything Old is New Again', 'I Still Call Australia Home', 'Tenterfield Saddler' and 'I Go to Rio' were the crowd favourites!

A lifelong fan of Judy Garland, Saskia Penn steps into Miss Garland's shoes (or should I say ruby slippers?) for the third time. Her flawless portrayal encapsulates the very essence of Garland through a remarkable display of emotion, vocal talent, and precise physicality. Her renditions of 'All I Wanted was The Dream', 'Only an Older Woman' and 'Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage' were sublime. Penn’s skill in replicating Garland’s warm, velvety vocals with belting techniques and vibrato on higher notes is remarkable. Her rapport with both Peter and Liza showcases impeccable timing in both serious and humorous moments.

Sarah Monteaux as Liza Minnelli is an exciting star on the rise! From the moment she stepped onto the stage, her magnetic personae captivated the audience. Monteaux's captivating performance of 'Sure Thing Baby' (including a lively dance evocative of an A Chorus Line routine) was truly magnificent. Additionally, her heartfelt interpretations of ‘I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love’ and ‘Best That You Can Do’ were filled with emotional intensity and genuine sentiment. Monteaux’s remarkable resemblance, unique interpretation of the character, vocal delivery, and dance prowess effortlessly exude the essence of Minnelli to absolute perfection!

Her fifty years of performing experience are evident when Maureen Andrew as Marion Woolnough, graces the stage. Her portrayal of Peter's resilient and devoted mother (who faced significant challenges in her life) adds a nice warm contrast to the more upbeat parts of the show. Undoubtedly, her poignant rendition of ‘Don’t Cry Out Loud’ moved even the most stoic individuals to tears by the song’s conclusion. Mark Eather's portrayal of the troubled Dick Woolnough (Peter's father) although relatively small was effectively executed. Reuben Koronczyk (as young Peter Allen) exuded a vibrant energy with his lively interpretation of ‘When I Get My Name in Lights’. His acting displayed remarkable focus, and he delivered raw emotions convincingly during the dramatic scenes, especially considering his young age. Ethan Lockhart will play the role at alternate performances.

In his debut performance with Theatrical, Leighton Garwin’s portrayal of Greg Connell enriches the narrative, offering a moving depiction of love, sacrifice, and acceptance. His rendition of ‘I Honestly Love You’ was authentically delivered, tender, and brimming with emotion. Jeremy Grigg as Chris Bell (Peter’s ten-year partner in The Allen Brothers duo) stands out brilliantly in the captivating dance sequence ‘Pretty Keen Teen’. Other notable leads include: Scott England (Brian Henderson), Nathan Fernadez (Dee Anthony & Wally Bell), Elise Moorhouse (Val Anthony) and Jett Archer (Trick).

An incredibly delightful and surprising element of this performance is the Trio (Peter’s backing vocalists). Sylvia Kokkinos, Tara Lichtenstein, and Angelina Sevastopoulos not only excel as supporting vocalists in ‘Not the Boy Next Door’, ‘Bi-Coastal’, and ‘Love Don't Need a Reason’ but also shine as lead performers in their own right during ‘Somebody’s Angel’ and ‘She Loves to Hear the Music’. Their mastery of challenging harmonies and demanding vocal ranges was truly exceptional. They stood out as one of the highlights of the show! Bravo, ladies!  Finally, but not least, the dancers and the ensemble play a crucial role in the show, each contributing vocally and through their energetic dancing, adding personality and vitality to the performance. To see the Act Two dance numbers 'When Everything Old is New Again' (performed by Allen and the nine Rockettes) and the finale 'I Go to Rio' (the entire cast) is worth the price of admission!

'The Best That You Can Do' is get tickets 'Once Before (they) Go!' Don't forget to bring your Maracas! 

Jonathan Cox

Photos: Nicole Cleary

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