People have been telling me for weeks that The Boy From Oz would be a hit because it had a huge ackman in it. I invariably replied that whatever an ackman might be, even a really large one couldn’t save a mediocre show. Well, I was wrong. The Boy From Oz is a thoroughly mediocre musical, but it has a Hugh Jackman in it, and he can apparently save any situation; at least intermittently, he makes this plodding item seem twinkling and airborne. Whoever hired him displayed huge acumen. Not since Jeanmaire wowed Broadway in The Girl in Pink Tights, back in the days when Republicans were human beings, has a New York audience been so secure in its ability to see the difference between a star and his surroundings.
There was no particular reason for The Boy From Oz to be so mediocre, but then, there was no particular reason for it to exist at all. It never seems to occur to Broadway producers that the lives of dead performers make lousy musicals, since the source of the audience’s interest cannot, by definition, be part of the show. The exception would be something like Funny Girl, where you had not only a genuine star but some rather good new songs and a lavish production, heavily doctored by no less than Jerome Robbins. The Boy From Oz can’t boast such delights. Peter Allen’s songs, though goodish of their kind—second-rank, one might say, rather than second-rate—don’t tell the story of Peter Allen very effectively, and don’t adapt well to the arena-level bloat of Michael Gibson’s orchestrations and Acme Sound Partners’ ear-blasting amplification.
The story of Allen’s life isn’t that distinctive to start with—just your standard tale of a showbiz-struck gay kid struggling to escape dysfunctional parents and a stifling small town. Escape too quickly, end up in the fast lane, and crash. Martin Sherman’s new book (doctored from an original by Nick Enright) zings out these familiar showbiz tropes with crisp pungency, but that doesn’t make them less familiar, and Allen’s songs, slick pop collaborations with some personal flair but little personal revelation, were never built to advance such a tale or heighten its dramatic intensity. Skilled hands like Beth Fowler and Jarrod Emick, as Peter’s mum and lover respectively, make what they can out of the scraps the script offers them, and Isabel Keating’s prim, porcelain Judy Garland is at least a viable solution to an impossible task. But Stephanie J. Block finds no solution (or rather, finds too many) to the problem of embodying Liza Minnelli, and Michael Mulheren’s notion of Allen’s alcoholic dad is one long shout. William Ivey Long’s stylishly cut clothes make a brave struggle to turn ’70s glitter’n’grunge into Longian elegance; Robin Wagner’s sets seem to have given up the struggle early on.
But Jackman, who sings and dances much better than the real Peter Allen ever did, is a salve for all wounds: His long jaw sets in a smile, or his long legs lope into a dance, and for a few minutes you think you’re at a real Broadway musical and everything’s all right. It takes the combined weight of book, score, and staging to remind you that you’re living in the era of recycled pop junk. Jackman even gets away with the show’s silliest error: trying to rouse Ozzian patriotism in the middle of Manhattan, with him belting out “I Still Call Australia Home” before a full-stage backdrop of the Australian flag. Here the show’s creators have surely lapsed into self-delusion. Like many deeply alienated entertainers, Peter Allen was a canny showbiz manipulator his whole life long; the only Oz for which he ever felt an ounce of genuine patriotism was the one manufactured by MGM, with the yellow brick road and the teenage Judy.
A similar personal triumph, over somewhat less barren ground, is being worked a block away by Tovah Feldshuh, whose one-woman rendering of Golda Meir’s collected cabinet meetings, Golda’s Balcony, has moved uptown from the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre. While Jackman’s asset is the traditional vaudevillian’s easy charm, Feldshuh’s is the ferocity of a tragedienne at fever pitch. When she lifts and moves a chair onstage, as Scott Schwartz’s staging often asks her to, it’s with the fervor of King Lear rampaging on the heath. The real Golda Meir, after becoming prime minister, probably never lifted anything heavier than a matzoh ball; Feldshuh’s implacable version makes you shudder to think what became of the rest of the matzoh. Schwartz plays up the ferocity, making his star render both Golda’s personal story and the history of the state of Israel at breakneck speed, with a barrage of visual and sound effects to keep her on the mark. A few breathers for vulnerability wouldn’t hurt. William Gibson’s script pounds home all the expected pro-Israeli arguments, but if you go in knowing that, you might be agreeably surprised at the extent of his, or Golda’s, willingness to see the other side of the case, and to adumbrate the complexity of the issues involved. And if we could find a way to hook Feldshuh to an electric generator, New York would never have a blackout again.