In “Love Crazy,” one of the early musical numbers in The Boy From Oz at Celebration Theatre, the lyric “energy is ev’rything!” is sung – energetically – a number of times. While energy isn’t really everything – talent is kinda important too – I found myself thinking the phrase could be the mantra for this ebullient, exuberant, exhilarating, and enthralling production. The cast’s energy and enthusiasm are so high it’s a wonder the roof doesn’t blow off the theatre, and that effervescence and electricity are exactly what the show needs – and produces – in abundance.
That this is the case is hardly surprising, given that the director of The Boy From Oz is Michael A. Shepperd, Celebration’s Co-Artistic Director, and one of the highest-energy individuals in Los Angeles. As a performer, he routinely raises the bar – and the roof – of whatever theatre he’s in, which made him an inspired choice to helm this over-the-top musical bio of Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen, who was pretty over the top himself.
The story itself isn’t all that unusual: a young boy – a little “different” – comes from an unhappy home, and decides his future lies in show business. He struggles to succeed, meets and is mentored by someone older and more experienced in the biz, and, after more struggles and setbacks, finally achieves success, only to fall ill and die prematurely. What makes this story different from the many others of its ilk is that the “someone older” is the legendary Judy Garland, the “struggles and setbacks” include Allen’s problematic marriage to her daughter Liza Minelli, and his premature death was due to AIDS, which he contracted during bouts of sex with men and women throughout the wildly hedonistic 1970s.
If the show is to be believed – and why not? – Allen was bigger than life even as a tot playing the piano and singing at a bar in small-town Australia. The charming Michayla Brown is Young Peter, and it’s a telling sign that Mr. Shepperd has chosen an Asian girl to play the role: expect anything, he seems to be telling us. A case in point is Kelly Lester as Peter’s mother Marion, warm and supportive but – seemingly – a standard small-town, small-minded mother. That is, until she brings down the house with one of the show’s most emotional songs.
Speaking of emotion, there’s plenty of it in The Boy From Oz, and it’s pitched perfectly. While the big numbers are suitably splashy, the quiet moments are, appropriately, just that. The simplicity and directness with which Mr. Shepperd stages the immensely moving “Love Don’t Need a Reason,” and the potentially cloying “I Honestly Love You” strip them of artifice and give them the honesty and emotional resonance they require. Michael Mittman, who sings the latter, makes an attractively sincere romantic foil for Peter, giving him love and support until his own death from AIDS; Mr. Mittman plays the role well, simply and realistically.
Bess Motta as Judy Garland and Jessica Pennington as Liza are astonishing: bringing two easily-overplayed icons to life without caricature, making them both believable and sympathetic. Ms Motta gets some of the best lines in the show, including (to Peter) “You’re green – you haven’t had your stomach pumped yet” and, describing her family, “We’re like the Waltons – with sequins.” She also resents that daughter Liza held a note longer than she at a concert, damning it as “vocal matricide.” Both women possess flawless timing and terrific voices, and thankfully keep the impersonations subtle.
They are given invaluable help in their characterizations by Byron Batista’s wigs and Michael Mullen’s costumes, one of which – for Liza – is, I think, the most glittery dress I’ve ever seen. Indeed, Mr. Mullen’s costumes across the board are spectacular, exploding with color and sparkle and emphasizing the outsize theatricality of the production – there’s even what looks like an entirely different set of costumes for the closing number, more outrageous (if possible) than what came before. The set by Yuri Okahana, lighting by Derrick McDaniel, props by Michael O’Hara, and sound by Eric Snodgrass all make valuable contributions.
Then there’s the band. Musical Director Bryan Blaskie manages – with only four musicians – to create a soundscape worthy of a big theatre. The sound is rich and full: I don’t know how he does it, but it’s fabulous.
And Janet Roston’s choreography deserves a paragraph of its own. Lush and inventive, filling the stage, incorporating witty Fosse-esque moves for Liza’s numbers, it’s a kinetic work of art in itself.
I’m not a big fan of awards in theatre – is so-and-so’s performance really better than whosis’s?!? – but I’d be willing to make an exception for Andrew Bongiorno’s turn as Peter Allen. It’s a huge role, the equivalent of running a marathon with only a few moments offstage – and more than a few of those involve costume changes. Mr. Bongiorno not only sings and dances up a storm and acts convincingly, but also projects a tremendous likability throughout. He captures the essence of Peter Allen, an entertainer who would seemingly do anything to please an audience, and who succeeded more often than not. It’s a bravura performance, and deserves the standing ovation I’m sure he’ll get at every show.
But frankly, the whole production deserves a standing ovation, and I’m one of those curmudgeons who thinks standing O’s are much too lightly given. I was fortunate enough to see Peter Allen at Radio City Music Hall, a cavernous space which he nevertheless filled with the sheer power of his personality, as well as the exuberance of his music and his movement (not to mention the high kicks of the Rockettes). Amazingly, Mr. Shepperd and his cast have managed to recreate the joyous abandon of that show, along with providing the satisfaction quotient of a full-scale Broadway musical, on the postage-stamp sized stage of Celebration. Mr. Shepperd’s philosophy seems to be, if you’re in a small space, don’t scale things down – make ’em bigger! It’s a great philosophy, and the result is brash and loud and over the top and, in this case, an unalloyed triumph. Go.
The Boy From Oz
Music and Lyrics by Peter Allen
Book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright
Directed by Michael A. Shepperd
Through June 19
Celebration Theatre @ The Lex
6760 Lexington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com