State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
August 11, 2018

The Boy from Oz presents the life of Peter Allen rather like one of the singer-songwriter’s shows: it’s fast-paced, packed with songs, littered with loud shirts, and regularly addresses the audience directly. There’s also lots of great dancing in this energetic production, which is a crowd pleaser – despite the fact that many of the songs, nearly all of which were written or co-written by Allen, are obscure, sometimes even a bit dull.

Rohan Browne is fabulous as Allen: tender and still for Tenterfield Saddler one minute, then turning the mood up to 11 for I Go to Rio the next. He’s a genuine ‘triple threat’, with a strong, pleasing voice, slick dance skills, and confident charm as the showman who presents his life story like a grand cabaret, patter and all. Browne is more athletic than Allen was but, from where I was sitting, he makes a convincingly boyish facsimile.

The Boy from Oz, Boy from Oz, Production CompanyRohan Browne in The Boy from Oz. Photo © Jeff Busby

Caroline O’Connor is a pitch-perfect Judy Garland – the tone of voice, the breathiness, gestures, humour and anxiety – and so is Loren Hunter as her most famous daughter. Hunter’s transformation from the girl-next-door Liza Minnelli to the fully fledged version, including Garland-esque voice and distinctive pixie cut, is remarkable – especially the moment of transition, during Sure Thing Baby, when she shows off her pipes and leggy dance moves in a little red sequinned dress.

The supporting cast’s stand-outs are Robyn Arthur, who brings a sweet sympathy to the predominantly spoken role of Allen’s mother, and Maxwell Simon, marvelously at ease as Allen’s Texan partner. His only real chance to shine is a solo, I Honestly Love You, sung with a sensitivity and lovely tone that suggest larger roles lie ahead.

Boy from OzHudson Sharp, Francis Greenslade, Robyn Arthur. Photo © Jess Busby

Comic actor Francis Greenslade is solid if rather wasted in the minor dramatic roles of Allen’s father and manager. Backing singers Baylie Carson, Josie Lane and Phoenix Mendoza are a vocal powerhouse, though their 21st century penchant for over-singing in their two showcase numbers is anachronistic.

The talented supporting ensemble is particularly strong in the dance department. They execute Michael Ralph’s dynamic choreography with impressive unity, verve and abundant high-kicks – most notably during the classic, show-stopping chorus line for When Everything Old is New Again. Also lending excellent support is The Production Company Orchestra, a tight 11-piece glimpsed at the back of the stage behind a scrim.

Rohan Browne and Maxwell Simon. Photo © Jeff Busby

Christina Smith’s set is hardly there, but there’s so much colour and movement otherwise that the vast State Theatre stage never looks bare. The fixture is a steep, white staircase amid a sea of black, and a white grand piano appears regularly as both instrument and prop for Browne to channel Allen’s showmanship. Other occasional additions include an old upright piano, for a recurring scene of Allen as a boy performing at the local pub.

Rohan Browne and Caroline O’Connor. Photo © Jeff Busby

In this show about a showman, much of the huge array of lights are effectively part of the set, including a backdrop of narrow LED columns that produce a diverse array of evocative effects – just one aspect of Trent Suidgeest’s snappy, action-packed lighting design. Tim Chappel’s costumes are many and varied – there must have been a score of showy shirt changes for Browne alone. His designs often strongly evoke the 1960s and 70s with a remarkable efficiency of line and fabric selection, though there’s no holding back on spangles and sequins.

Director Jason Langley keeps things moving along seamlessly, and adds a few touches in an effort to freshen up what is now a 20-year-old show: rainbow flags during the I Go To Rio finale, and for I Still Call Australia Home the Indigenous flag is on the back of Allen’s signature sequinned Australian-flag shirt, and the chorus, dressed to emphasise diversity, both sing and sign the words. They’re all positive gestures, but seem to be tokenistically retrofitted into the life of Peter Allen.

The Boy from Oz is at Arts Centre Melbourne until August 26

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