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Theater review: ‘The Boy From Oz’

The Boy From Oz

• Through Aug. 10

• Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd., Dallas

• $30-$50

• 214-219-2718; www.uptownplayers.org

Posted 3:50pm on Tuesday, Jul. 29, 2014

It’s no wonder The Boy From Oz ran exactly 52 weeks on Broadway in 2003-04, the length of the contract of its star, Hugh Jackman, who picked up a best actor Tony Award. It’s the kind of show that, not unlike Jerry Herman’s big hits Hello, Dolly! and Mame, can only work with a phenomenally charismatic and utterly engaging performer in the title role.

That’s what Uptown Players has in Alex Ross, who has already proved his worth and won over local audiences in other shows with his nice-guy good looks and triple-threat skills. After this production, which opened Friday at the Kalita Humphreys Theater and runs through Aug. 10, he’ll be several steps closer — to quote one of the Oz songs — to getting his name in lights.

The Boy From Oz is a biographical musical about Peter Allen, the Australian-born songwriter who was discovered by Judy Garland and then married her daughter Liza Minnelli before coming out as gay. His hits included I Go to Rio and the Oscar-winning Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).

Aside from needing that all-in performer as Allen, not to mention rare talent in the daunting roles of Judy and Liza, there are probably other reasons why the musical hasn’t been done much after Broadway. In fact, Uptown’s is the first regional American professional production since the Great White Way. (Jackman reprised it for an arena tour in his homeland of Australia in 2006.)

Told in narration by Allen looking back at his life (he died of AIDS in 1992), the narrative is laid out in a clunky “and then this happened” format: Peter has a rough childhood. Song. Likes to entertain. Song, tap dance. Meets Judy. Song with glitter. Meets Liza. Song. Goo-goo-eyed glitter. Breaks up with Liza. Sad face. Meets lover Greg. Love song. Dies. We all go to Rio!

So, a musical that requires big, splashy production numbers — read: money to do them well — plus three difficult roles to fill and tunes that are not great theater songs (Even when Olivia Newton-John sang Allen’s gooiest hit, I Honestly Love You, which is given to the ghost of Greg here, there’s no way to avoid eye-rolling) can be a tough sell to producers.

But not for audiences, apparently. Uptown likely has the biggest hit in its history of big hits on its hands. And for good reason. Director Cheryl Denson, her cast and the design team do everything right (Rodney Dobbs’ scenic design and Suzi Cranford’s costume design are outstanding).

In this show, there’s no winking at the audience, unless the script calls for it, and no hint from the performers that they are in anything less than a stellar work of art.

One thing the musical’s book does beautifully is explore the impact of the women in Allen’s life: the aforementioned Judy and Liza and, most importantly, his mother, Marion. Played by Jodi Wright, she’s the mom we all want. Wright gives the best performance in a non-showy role — in a musical filled with showiness — you may ever see.

As Judy in her later years, Janelle Lutz has the mannerisms and look down, not to mention those Mommie Dearest-like moments. (Big shoutout to wig and makeup designer Coy Covington, whose perfectionist handiwork is all over this production.) She doesn’t sound just like Judy (who could?), but the vocal style is spot-on.

An even bigger feat comes from Sarah Elizabeth Smith, who plays Liza at the beginning of her showbiz career. Liza’s speaking rhythms are as well known as William Shatner’s or Christopher Walken’s, and Smith makes them feel natural. With Lutz and Smith, it’s never about caricature or impression.

There’s also fabulous work from Westin Brown as Young Peter Allen, Kyle Montgomery as Greg and the top-notch ensemble. Choreographer Jeremy Dumont transports us to the ’70s and ’80s as if he were a reincarnated Solid Gold dancer. Kudos to music director Scott A. Eckert, too.

But, just like Oz wouldn’t have made it to or on Broadway without Jackman, it’s hard to imagine Uptown staging it with anyone else but Ross. He turns on the charm early, and in the second act really loosens up to transform into the boffo Vegas showman that Allen became. There’s humanity under that showbiz facade, too.

It’s a star-making performance, and one of many reasons you better score tickets to Oz now. To call it “blockbuster” would be an understatement.

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