Trust Judy to come up with the best advice. "You're an OK opener, kid. But ultimately people want to see a human being," the great Garland tells entertainer Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz," the new Broadway musical celebrating the gay Australian songwriter who helped define the disco era of the late 1970s and 1980s.
Garland, in an eerie, astonishing impersonation by Isabel Keating, could be talking about what's wrong with the show itself, a particularly frantic and soulless bit of show-biz folderol that stars mega-hunk Hugh Jackman as Allen.
Yet if there were a lifetime achievement award for Broadway's hardest working actor, the personable Jackman would win - hands, feet and legs down or up on the piano. They seem to go in every which way as he sings, dances, mugs, minces and attempts to levitate this leaden production all by himself.
The man rarely leaves the stage of the Imperial Theatre, where the musical opened Thursday. It's quite an achievement, but in the end, the flamboyant Allen, who died of AIDS in 1992, remains an elusive figure, done in by less-than-lively material pushed unimaginatively around the stage by director Philip Wm. McKinley.
Maybe that's because book writer Martin Sherman has come up with a turgid, by-the-numbers "resume" plot. A lot of facts but not much light.
In a way, "Oz" - slang for Australia - resembles those flashy, melodramatic Hollywood biopics of the 1940s. Only it's gayer and peppered with songs by Allen: hits such as "I Honestly Love You" and "Don't Cry Out Loud" as well some lesser-known songs and even numbers from Allen's one Broadway musical, a flop called "Legs Diamond."
The production opens with Allen and a baby grand piano on stage as he looks back on a life that began in Tenterfield, Australia. It quickly moves to Allen's early celebrity as part of a double act on an Australian version of "American Bandstand"; his discovery by Garland in a Hong Kong nightclub; his marriage to Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli; their divorce; his relationship with boyfriend Greg Connell (who also died of AIDS) and finally Allen's own demise.
Whew! That's a lot of material to cover in one evening, especially sandwiched between Allen songs that have been inserted, "Mamma Mia!" style, in the show, whether they fit or not. One of the more bizarre moments: Connell, gamely portrayed by Jarrod Emick, dressed in white and returning from the grave to sing "I Honestly Love You."
But then the evening is filled with unfortunate musical choices, like "She Loves to Hear the Music." The big Liza number - complete with a mile-high LIZA spelled out across the stage in red - fizzles, let down by Joey McNeely’s faux Fosse choreography.
It's risky business having actors play real people the audience knows all too well. It works in the case of Garland. It doesn't in the case of Minnelli. Only Liza could play Liza, and a miscast Stephanie J. Block, hampered by an unflattering bird's nest black wig, can only approximate the young star.
There's another young star on stage though, a little dynamo named Mitchel David Federan. who portrays Allen as a boy. The kid, an obvious crowd-pleaser, dances up a storm and is quite a gymnast to boot.
Veteran Broadway performer Beth Fowler brings a measure of sweetness and calm to the role of Allen's stoic mother, although having her sing "Don't Cry Out Loud" after Allen's father has committed suicide is another odd musical interlude.
Visually, "The Boy From Oz" looks undernourished. The sets by the usually reliable Robin Wagner are undistinguished and, at times, downright skimpy. New York doesn't look much different from Hong Kong.
The show's finale is equally weird with Allen announcing his own death by saying, "And then curtain ... it was over." Well, not before the star makes one last appearance on a long white staircase. Heaven appears to be a bad Las Vegas revue populated with chorus boys and showgirls wearing William Ivey Long's garish costumes and the entire cast gyrating to "I Go to Rio."
You get the idea. In the end, "The Boy From Oz" is a show filled with aimless energy rather than inspiration, leaving theatergoers exhausted rather than entertained.
When you die, the next best thing to going to heaven may be having a musical based on your life in which you are played by Hugh Jackman.
That has happened to Peter Allen in "The Boy From Oz."
Allen was a singer/songwriter, many of whose songs became gold and platinum hits for other artists. In 1981, he shared an Oscar for writing the theme song to "Arthur." At the height of his career, he sold out two weeks at Radio City Music Hall. He died in 1992 of AIDS, at 48.
Allen, whom I saw about 25 years ago at a cozy Village place called Reno Sweeney, had a goofy but disarming smile, a lot of talent, a huge amount of energy and a wry sense of humor.
I couldn't have imagined that his journey from the Australian Outback to superstardom would be the subject of a Broadway musical.
Neither could I have imagined that he would be played by an actor so charismatic he could take Allen's likable but often slight songs and fill them with emotional power.
Jackman conveys the almost desperate eagerness to please that is part of many performers' makeup.
For Allen, the eagerness was a campy mannerism. For Jackman, it is a challenge he meets with ferocious gusto.
You sense his magic as soon as the lights come up on him at the piano. He smiles innocently.
Immediately the house is his.
Jackman manages to project the sadness and insecurity that were always part of Allen's personal and professional makeup.
But his talent is so huge, it transcends Allen's neuroses.
Even his dancing shows an actor's understanding. Initially, Jackman's hoofing has a comic energy, that of someone who is not a natural dancer but who applies himself earnestly as if it were a professional duty.
By the middle of the show, however, when he becomes the first man to dance with the Rockettes, he has made his dancing a way to express a wild, intense joy, and the effect is electrifying.
The show uses Allen's songs to tell his story. In Jackman's voice, the songs always seem appropriate. In some other cases, the songs have an awkwardness akin to the use of ABBA tunes in "Mamma Mia."
That is because Martin Sherman's book, though full of sharp humor, seems too truncated, merely a convenient way to get from song to song.
It deals pretty well with Judy Garland, who was briefly Allen's mother-in-law. Isabel Keating plays her splendidly, never resorting to cheap celebrity imitation.
As her daughter (older readers may remember her - Liza Minnelli), Stephanie J. Block is bland, though this may be deliberate, since her neurotic energy could easily swamp the stage.
Beth Fowler is touching as Allen's mother. Michael Mulheren is great first as his father, then as his American agent. Jarrod Emick is beautiful as Allen's lover. Michael David Federan is an endearing dynamo as the child Allen.
Robin Wagner's sets give the show glamour and efficiency. William Ivey Long brings a consummate understanding of the sequin and a lush imagination to the costumes.
Joey McKneely's choreography has comic zest, and Philip McKinley's direction is full of skillful touches,
As a show, "The Boy From Oz" sometimes seems like an expanded drag act, but Jackman's performance is so dazzling he transforms it into great Broadway entertainment.
Let's make this simple: The show's plus is its superstar. The show's minus is the show itself.
The show in question is "The Boy From Oz," which opened last night starring a dazzling Hugh Jackman.
"Oz" tells the story of the popular Australian entertainer Peter Allen - onetime protege of Judy Garland, later husband of Garland's daughter Liza Minnelli -who died in 1992, at age 48, of AIDS.
Martin Sherman's book (there was an earlier version by Nick Enright) describes a familiar showbiz arc, from traditional humble beginnings - in small-town Australia, in this case - through fame and on to death.
Sherman handles the incidental figures neatly, provides some snappy dialogue, and doesn't shy from Allen's flamboyant homosexuality. (To do otherwise would be like making Oscar Wilde an action hero.)
The music ("I Go to Rio," "Don't Cry Out Loud") is almost entirely by Allen, as are many of the lyrics, while his longtime writing partner, Carole Bayer Sager, wrote most of the rest.
Granted, both the score and the book are light-years better than Allen's own 1988 Broadway flop, "Legs Diamond."
Even so, that leaves ample room for mediocrity. The truth is that Allen's music - gamely helped by the orchestrations of Michael Gibson and the dance music arrangements of Mark Hummel - has worn thinly, sounding rather like Burt Bacharach and seltzer water.
The staging, by Broadway neophyte Philip William McKinley, seems more adequate than presidential.
Perhaps fortunately, it's often overwhelmed by Joey McKneely's boisterous, campily stylish - and beautifully danced - choreography.
Robin Wagner's settings, many of them variations on a cityscape, are exceptionally elegant, while Donald Holder's apt lighting and William Ivey Long's terrific costumes make the evening worth looking at.
Isabel Keating and Stephanie J. Block offer incisive and telling vignettes as Garland and Minnelli, respectively, Jarrod Emick is sterling as Allen's no-nonsense boyfriend, while Beth Fowler charms as his gutsy mother and Mitchel David Federan convinces as Allen as a child.
But it's Jackman - a better performer than Allen himself ever was - who is sensational.
He exactly catches Allen's playful, cheerful, ambiguous sexuality while jumping and sliding on, over and around pianos.
It's not a perfect match-up, for Allen had a certain dangerous sense of decadence that the fresh-faced Jackman, as hard as he tries, still lacks.
But Jackman, who knocked the roof off "Oklahoma!" at Britain's National Theatre, is a huge Broadway star, the real McCoy.
He can start rehearsing his Tony acceptance speech any time this morning
Still, a show ultimately is only as good as its book, music and lyrics permit. In this respect, "The Boy From Oz" isn't unduly permissive.
Hugh Jackman's shoulders must ache like the devil when he wakes up in the morning. After all, this able-bodied, infinitely appealing young man is spending most of his nights engaged in the heaviest lifting this side of a Mr. Universe training camp. No shoulders, no matter how broad, should be asked to heft such a burden.
But that's what happens when you put an indisputably authentic star, like Mr. Jackman, at the center of an indisputably bogus show like ''The Boy From Oz,'' the bathetic musical biography of the Australian entertainer and songwriter Peter Allen, which opened last night at the Imperial Theater. If you don't have an Atlas in the leading role, everything topples into that dark and ghoulish memory bank that is always awaiting Broadway failures.
Were it not for Mr. Jackman, that would doubtless be the fate of ''The Boy From Oz,'' a backstage, back-story look at show business that makes the movie of ''Valley of the Dolls'' seem like ''Children of Paradise.'' But in keeping with the philosophy of Allen, presented here as an eliminate-the-negative kind of guy, let's linger on the positives for a moment. Make that positive, singular. It's an important positive, though, since real-live matinee idols seldom drop by Broadway anymore, and Mr. Jackman's marquee value in ''Oz'' has helped generate a $10 million advance.
First of all, let it be said that Mr. Jackman never looks as if he's even thinking about shrugging this soggy cardboard world of a show off his shoulders. A rising movie star who became world famous playing a pompadour-wearing mutant in the ''X-Men'' films, Mr. Jackman more than confirms the bright theatrical promise of his performances in the 1998 revival of ''Oklahoma!'' in London and the Carnegie Hall concert version of ''Carousel'' last year.
Portraying the besequined Peter Allen, the Swinging 70's answer to Liberace, is of course a different proposition from embodying the flannel-wearing he-men of Rodgers and Hammerstein. But Mr. Jackman confronts the challenge with an alacrity that seems to transform his very physique.
Does anyone familiar with this actor's previous work remember his having such a long and sinuous frame? Like Allen, who died of AIDS in 1992 at 48, this reincarnated, newly elongated Hugh Jackman seems to be doing a perpetual serpentine shimmy, even when he's standing still.
Mr. Jackman's singing voice, though occasionally flat, cannily echoes the way Allen turned his Australian twang into a shiny instrument that slid from dry urbanity to moist sentimentality. (Mr. Jackman is also a native of Australia.) And he captures the insinuating sparkle that was so often in Allen's eyes when he was onstage -- that illusion that he was cruising everyone in the audience.
Mr. Jackman achieves this without resorting to parody, caricature or literal imitation, the bane of the Madame Tussaud-style theater of celebrity. (There are actresses playing Liza Minnelli, to whom Allen was briefly married, and her mother, Judy Garland, to take care of that side of things.)
His limbs twirling like the blades of a windmill, Mr. Jackman channels the energy that was Allen with a rejuvenating life force all his own. And you don't feel -- as you so often do with such interpretations -- that your memories of the prototype have been blurred. This is a performance that, against the odds, holds on to its integrity.
Those odds, for the record, are astronomical. As directed by Philip Wm. McKinley, ''The Boy From Oz'' presents Allen as a hard-smiling, hard-partying cipher, forever on the run from his fears and doubts. And as written by the respected playwright Martin Sherman (''Bent,'' ''When She Danced''), from Nick Enright's original book, ''Oz'' seems never to have met a show-biz cliché it didn't like.
The hardscrabble, small-town childhood with an abusive father and adoring mother; the heady rise to the top and the depressive slide downward, rendered with the theatrical equivalent of splashy cinematic montage -- these elements are served without spice or shading, as if familiarity alone were enough to give them emotional clout.
The leadenness is compounded by Allen's flat connective narrative, in which every new speech seems to begin with the equivalent of ''And then I . . . '' (Don't even get me started on the aspiringly clever double entendres that pass for sophisticated dialogue.)
Add to this the shorthand psychology of a bisexual, egocentric star who never learns to express his deepest feelings and a ''Citizen Kane''-like conclusion that explains the origins of all that denial. Hint: the revelation is set to one of Allen's signature numbers, ''Don't Cry Out Loud,'' warbled here by his mother, Marian Woolnough (Beth Fowler), to his childhood self (the engaging Mitchel David Federan).
Allen's music does not benefit from being jimmied into the plot in such a manner. Nor is it helped by the arrangements, which feature back-up choruses of ''ooohs'' that bring to mind the Carpenters at their most syrupy. The wryness and wistfulness of his ballads become synthetic and shallow. In some cases, context alone makes the songs unbearable, as when Allen's dead boyfriend (Jarrod Emick) descends from heaven, an angelic vision in white sportswear, to sing ''I Honestly Love You.''
Ghosts do have an annoying habit of sabotaging a good number in ''Oz.'' Take, for example, ''Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage,'' Allen's musical requiem to Judy Garland, for whom he once worked as part of an opening act. The song begins with Allen, alone at the piano, singing with affecting sincerity. But then the spectral Garland (Isabel Keating) takes over, and the poignancy turns grotesque.
The look of the show, which appears to be set in that big glitzy nightclub in the sky, is disconcertingly tatty. The musical's reported $9 million price tag isn't worn on its sets (Robin Wagner) or costumes (William Ivey Long), despite the illustrious track records of their creators.
The references to period styles seem at best dutiful and more often brazenly cheap. The sight gags used for Allen's professional apotheosis at Radio City Music Hall are a threadbare reworking of the ''Springtime for Hitler'' number in ''The Producers'' (also designed by Mr. Wagner and Mr. Ivey Long). Nor is there any original wit in Joey McKneely's clunky evocations of disco-era dancing.
But it's the characterizations of Garland and Ms. Minnelli (played by Stephanie J. Block) that contribute most heavily to the ouch factor in ''Oz.'' You can only pity Ms. Keating and Ms. Block, who are expected to deliver showstoppers in the bravura styles of the women they play. Ms. Keating looks so much like the middle-aged Garland, who first appears in a Tokyo nightclub where Allen is performing, that it's a jolt that she doesn't sing like her.
Ms. Block has been given a painfully inappropriate Allen song called ''She Loves to Hear the Music,'' which the actress, wearing a Halstonesque minidress, delivers as a wild-eyed nervous breakdown, amid a writhing throng of dancers. She also has to address Mr. Jackman with lines like the following: ''You're swimming in dangerous waters. I carry a lot of baggage.''
Well, sure, so does anyone who takes on the role of someone who is very much alive (in Ms. Minnelli's case) or vividly present in living memories (as with Allen and Garland). But Mr. Sherman's script never opens that baggage to look inside, instead letting its brand-name status do the talking.
The show's creators might argue that such was the nature of the world Allen inhabited that he indeed chose to live his life as if it were an all-star MGM musical in which surface is everything. At one point, a failure-singed Allen, listening to a pep talk from Minnelli, says, ''This is so showbiz what you're doing.'' Minnelli answers, ''But darling, we are showbiz.''
It's important to remember, though, that Allen, like the eternally divine Bette Midler, was crucial in introducing mainstream audiences to gay camp, with its sardonic but sincere worship of showbiz kitsch. How strange and sad that ''The Boy From Oz'' should revert so earnestly to the formulas that Allen sent up, glorified and turned inside out in performance. In divesting camp of its style, this musical settles for a staleness and a hollowness that even Mr. Jackman's blazing presence can't disguise.
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 showbiz? 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 last night 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 cliché 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 last spring's Tony Awards. 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 tying 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 it 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 house dress, and Mitchel David Federan, age 11, is spectacular as the young Peter. Jackman isn't the only star being born here.
There's something sexy about a guy who is secure enough in his masculinity to sashay across a Broadway stage in a sequined Hawaiian shirt.
OK, maybe it helps if the guy is Hugh Jackman, star of the flawed but ultimately endearing new musical The Boy From Oz (*** out of four), which opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre.
Jackman is cast as the late songwriter and entertainer Peter Allen, a fellow Australian who was neither as good-looking nor as good a singer. Anyone who saw Jackman play Curly in Britain's National Theatre production of Oklahoma! several years ago could attest to that.
What Allen apparently did have, besides a few hits and a brief marriage to Liza Minnelli, was an unshakable zest for life, a quality that becomes both Oz's central theme and its saving grace.
The biggest challenge to this homage may be Allen's songs, which dominate the score. Even those with a soft spot for such trinkets as I Go to Rio and Best That You Can Do (from the film Arthur) would be hard-pressed to argue that they're supple enough to carry a story as unabashedly sentimental as this one.
Playwright Martin Sherman does inject flashes of levity and wit into his account of Allen's life, which began in a deeply troubled home and ended with AIDS. But it's the show's cast, aided by Phillip Wm. McKinley's assured direction, that enables this production to transcend its more maudlin elements.
Jackman conveys Allen's flamboyance without showing a trace of vanity, even making his singing more brittle to be faithful to his character. His scenes with Stephanie J. Block's sweetly spunky Liza and Jarrod Emick, as the man with whom Allen finds true love, are imbued with tenderness and humor.
Beth Fowler is also winning as Allen's devoted mom, and a pre-adolescent dynamo named Mitchel David Federan ably plays the showman as a boy.
"You never give up, do you?" Jackman's Allen asks his younger image at one point. It's this affectionate tenacity that makes The Boy From Oz hard to resist.
Hugh Jackman makes it all look easy. Onstage as on film, he exudes warmth and a friendly sexuality. "X-Men" fans may not care, but he sings like a dream, too, and dances with a carefree exuberance. So it's a measure of the tough task he's set himself, as the star of "The Boy From Oz," that by the end of the evening, you feel he's been pulling grand pianos across the stage with his teeth for a few hours. Jackman is giving a vital and engaging performance in this pitifully flimsy musical almost in spite of the material he's been handed. It's a sad waste of an exciting talent.
One of the more highly anticipated shows of the fall season, primarily due to Jackman's participation, "The Boy From Oz" was a smash in Australia several seasons ago. Down Under, Peter Allen, the biomusical's subject, was a major name, the hometown boy who made good on the international stage. The singer-songwriter co-wrote and recorded a number of schmaltzy pop hits in the 1970s and '80s, most of which are better known in somebody else's version: Olivia Newton-John's "I Honestly Love You," Melissa Manchester's "Don't Cry Out Loud," the theme from "Arthur." Stateside, he was not a major figure, although his flashy, flamboyant stage presence brought him an ardent following -- bios always breathlessly remind that he sold out several shows running at Radio City Music Hall at the height of his fame. In showbiz shorthand, you might call him an eternal understudy for Barry Manilow.
The producers of the Broadway production presumably sensed that Allen's relative obscurity as a figure in the public consciousness warranted a wholesale rewrite of the show's book. Out went the one used in Australia, and the London-based American playwright Martin Sherman ("Bent," "Rose") was commissioned to write another. But what's onstage at the Imperial Theater almost seems to be an outline for a book, not the thing itself. You can practically see the thematic dividers forming on the page: 1. Childhood and youth. a) Alcoholic father, relationship to. b) Supportive mother, warm rapport with. 2. Early success... .
Directed with faceless efficiency by Philip McKinley, the show progresses chronologically through Allen's story, from his humble roots in a poor Australian town to the glittering showbiz capitals of the U.S., where Allen died of AIDS in 1992. A series of bare-bones scenes advance the story from turning point to turning point with dreary obviousness. As soon as the object of a sequence has been achieved -- "I love you, Liza," "I'm leaving you, Peter," "I'm gay, mom," "I'm dying" -- it's on to the next.
We get no sense of an actual life being lived, a personality being formed, or even a public persona being constructed. Judging from what's depicted here, you might think Allen spent the lion's share of his adult life changing his Hawaiian shirts. (The hard-working Jackman is onstage almost throughout the show, so most costume changes take place onstage.) When, late in the evening, Allen's dying boyfriend -- introduced about three scenes earlier -- accuses him of being "completely self-obsessed," it comes as news. As seen here, Allen is hardly a rapacious climber, notwithstanding that questionable marriage to Liza Minnelli. He's mostly just a likable guy to whom good things happen to happen.
Indeed, for long stretches of the first act, Jackman's Allen seems to be a bystander in his own life, either standing outside it, supplying far too much linking narration and campy commentary ("Can't we just jump to the glamorous part?"), or looking on as the more celebrated figures whose lives intersected with his, Liza and her mom, get to strut their stuff. (Isabel Keating, who has Judy Garland's twitchy mannerisms down pat, is a kitschy pleasure.) Even that corny old boilerplate scene, in which a budding talent first gets to win over a crowd, is given not to the adult Peter, which is to say Jackman, but to his younger self, the ferocious little Mitchel David Federan, whose wildly exuberant dancing is so determined to wow us it's hilarious. (And yes, Mitchel, it does wow us!)
Many a musical has survived book problems, of course, and, line by line, Sherman's has its share of verbal wit. Biographical stories are always a challenge onstage: Life doesn't tend to shape itself into neat dramatic arcs. But the musical's score, some two dozen songs drawn from the Allen songbook, hinders as much as it helps the cause. The songs weren't written to serve a story or define a specific character, and as they glide by, mostly in lite-FM arrangements, they almost seem to be arranged at random -- the bland banality of many of the lyrics could almost suit any emotional occasion. (Most peculiar choice: "I Honestly Love You" being sung by Allen's dead lover, returning for a visit in ghost form.) Rather perversely, the musical leaves out Allen's most personal and specifically autobiographical song, "Tenterfield Saddler," which might just be his loveliest composition, too.
And, sad to say, the show doesn't even honor the spirit of Allen's fondness for splashy excess. The big moments look alarmingly skimpy. The most lavish number in act one is a faux-Fosse extravaganza for Liza alone (why?) that comes across as rather tacky. And for Allen's triumphant turn at Radio City Music Hall, we get a line of fake Rockettes followed by a few real ones flitting around spinning mirrors, desperately attempting to look numerous. The exuberantly cheesy finale, a Ziegfeld-style romp down a big staircase for the entire cast, performed to "I Go to Rio," comes as too little, too late. Robin Wagner's sets, primarily large backdrops, assorted furniture and prominently placed pianos, are modest by Broadway standards, and William Ivey Long's costumes are a sometimes witty, sometimes rote collection of period duds.
Jackman sails through it all with impressive good spirits and high energy, giving his zestful all to everything he's given to do. He swishes prettily, he flirts outrageously, he shakes his hips with ceaseless vigor. He sings his share of the big, tear-your-heart-out ballads with affecting conviction. The casual delight in performing he radiates comes closer than anything in the show to demonstrating what made Peter Allen tick, and what made his fans take to him so deliriously. He absorbed and transformed the energy his fans brought to him, giving it right back to them festooned with sequins, sass, a smidgen of sex. Jackman does the same, but he's doing it in an aesthetic vacuum here, struggling to form a real bond with the audience without being given the right tools to do it with.
It's a measure of the musical's ineffectiveness that the most spontaneous exclamation of delight, notwithstanding the ovation-on-demand that greets the finale, was a boisterous catcall sent from the balcony when Jackman doffed his shirt and stood topless for a moment, a mischievous, mock-bashful grin on his face. The show doesn't come close to baring the soul of its subject -- the audience has to settle for a glimpse of skin.