A Tale of Two Cities 🎩 “The Boy from Oz” @ Landmark Musicals

The Boy from Oz (Landmark Musicals)userpic=theatre_tickets It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, …

Oh, wrong tale of two cities.

Let me tell you the story of two cities, both staging the West Coast Regional Premiere of The Boy from Oz, a musical based on the life of Peter Allen, with music and lyrics by Peter Allen*, and book by Martin Sherman and Nick Enright.
*: Additional music and lyrics by Adrienne Anderson, Burt Bacharach, Jeff Barry, Michael Callen, Christopher Cross, David Foster, Tom Keane, Marsha Malamet, Dean Pitchford, and Carole Bayer Sager.

In one city, there is an established theatre company going back to 1982, with a large donor pool and a reasonable budget for an intimate theatre. There are significant production resources collected over that time in terms of lights, stagecraft, sound, facilities. There is a large talent pool, and due to the nature of the company and local agreements, multiple AEA actors were allowed (on top of SAG/AFTRA actors). There is a small theatre (under 99 seats) to fill. There is time to plan the show, with the production being announced in August 2015. There is significant publicity, with numerous reviewers and almost daily posts in social media such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as publicity through popular blogs and theatre websites.

In the other city, there is a new company for which this is their second production. There is miniscule budget. There is a historic theatre with no production resources for which this is the first stage musical to be presented. There is a small talent pool with a short time to assemble it, as the rights for the show were approved in January 2016. There are limitations on the use of AEA actors (one AEA guest spot is permitted). There is a large old theatre to fill (399 seats). There is no social media presence, perhaps two reviews, and a small amount of publicity.

Both, however, open the same night, and both have the right to claim West Coast Regional premiere. However, one distinctly operates in the shadow of the other.

Perhaps the quote applies after all: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, …

Guess which production we saw? That’s right: as we believe a weekend is never complete without some form of live performance, we didn’t let a trip to the San Francisco Bay area deter us from theatre, and so last night we were in San Francisco’s Chinatown for the last weekend of Landmark Musical Theatre (FB)’s production of The Boy from Oz. As for the other city? Landmark’s production inspired us so much we want to do a “compare and contrast”, and have booked tickets to see the much better known Celebration Theatre (FB) production of The Boy from Oz while we are in Hollywood for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB).

If you are unfamiliar with The Boy from Oz, that’s not a surprise. The musical opened in Australia in 1998, and moved to Broadway in 2004, where it won a Tony for an actor you might have heard of: Hugh Jackman (FB). However, the show never went on tour, and the regional producing rights in America were not released until this year. So the show has faded from popular memory, much like the subject of the show, Peter Allen.  The show itself is a jukebox musical, using the songs of Peter Allen to tell the life-story of Peter Allen. This is a story that starts in the outback of Australia in Tenterfield, New South Wales. It includes Allen’s stint as part of the  It includes both Judy Garland, the mentor who discovered Allen in Hong Kong and for whom Allen was a protégé, and Liza Minnelli (FB), Garland’s daughter whom Allen married shortly after her success in Flora the Red Menace. It is a story of the birth of gay awareness, as Allen realizes he is homosexual during the marriage, and the birth of the gay movement including the Stonewall Riots that occurred shortly after Garland’s death. It is the story of Allen going out as a solo act, and hitting his peak popularity in the 1980s. And it is the story of AIDS, with the death of Allen’s lover, Greg Connell, from AIDS, followed by the death of Allen himself. It is a celebration of the life of Peter Allen.

The show features many of Allen’s better known songs, including “When I Get My Name In Lights”, “The Best That You Can Do”, “Continental American”, “She Loves to Hear the Music”, “Bi-Coastal”, “Everything Old is New Again”, “I Honestly Love You”, “I Still Call Australia Home”, “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, and “I Go to Rio”. You’ll know the songs, even if you don’t know Allen.

Boy From Oz (Publicity Photos)As I implied at the start of the writeup, the Landmark production had limited production funds. I’ll go into that in more detail when I cover the production aspects — lighting, costumes, sets, etc. But the production was still a great success and a lot of fun primarily due to the talent that director Jon Rosen (FB) assembled. It appears that much of the energy and drive for this production came from Rosen, who is by day a software designer (go Jon 😃), and by night an active theatre force in the SF Bay Area: producing, directing, doing lighting design, and acting. Rosen also serves as Artistic Director for Landmark Musical Theatre, who are developing their first full season of musicals at the Great Star Theatre.

Leading the production was the team’s one AEA guest artist: Dan Seda (FB) as Peter Allen (nee Peter Woolnough). Seda had a wonderful singing voice, and gave a warm and accessible performance. He was quite enjoyable and engaging to watch. His performance took quite a bit of energy, as he was on stage and involved in the action for almost every scene. He was particularly touching in his interactions with both Liza and Greg. I cannot judge how authentic his Australian accent was, but it was somewhere between Hugh Jackman and the guy that does the Outback commercial (but I think closer to Jackson).

There were three primary women in Allen’s life: Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and his mother, Marion Woolnough. Judy Garland was portrayed by Connie Champagne (FB), a well-known Garland impersonator who was one of the first performers cast. The program noted the New York times described her Garland portrayal as “a subtle masterpiece of parody and homage”. I would tend to agree with that: she eerily captured Garland’s persona and voice, with an oddly frozen look that worked well for Garland in the latter days of her life. What I found odd was that she didn’t lift that personal during the curtain call, when you would customarily see a smile. Evidently, she deeply immerses herself in her character. She did a great job in “All I Wanted Was The Dream”, as well as in “Only an Older Woman” and “Quiet Please,There’s a Lady On Stage.” As Liza Minnelli, Kat Robichaud (FB) captured the basic look of Minnelli well, and had the dance moves (especially in the Fosse-style number) down well. She needed a pinch more kookiness in Minnelli’s early days, but overall it was a great portray. Robichaud also did a great job of capturing Minnelli’s singing style, especially in “She Loves the Music.” Lastly, as Allen’s mother Marion Woolnough (pronounced “Wilna”), Amy Meyers (FB) did a spectacular job with a very touching portrayal… plus knockout singing on “Don’t Cry Out Loud”.

In the latter part of Allen’s life, the principle characters were Allen’s lover Greg Connell (played by Ivan Hardin (FB)), and Allen’s agent Dee Anthony (Keith T. Nielsen (FB), who also played Garland’s husband, Mark Herron). Hardin was wonderful, with a strong stage presence and a very engaging way about him. He also had a truly spectacular singing voice, which he demonstrated in “I Honestly Love You”. Men’s looks don’t normally catch my eye, but he had a look that made you see why Allen fell for him. Nielsen was also a surprise, who had a bit more of the Jerry Ohrbach vibe. He also had a strong singing voice.

One other non-ensemble member is worthy of special note: Dylan Palmer (who plays Young Peter Allen, alternating with Daniel Kaukonen). Palmer, for his age, was a remarkable singer and dancer, and interacted well with Seda’s Allen. He was just a delight to watch.

Rounding out the smaller roles and the ensemble positions were: Davin Coffey/FB [Ensemble]; Lisa Darter (FB) [Ensemble / Dance Captain]; Brian FitzMaurice (FB) [Dick Woolnough]; Janine Hartmann (FB) [Ensemble]; AeJay Mitchell (FB) [Trick, Ensemble]; Jery Rosas [Chris Bell]; Garrick Sather (FB) [Ensemble]; Joella Wolnik (FB) [Ensemble]; and Bessie Zolno (FB) [Ensemble].  Of these performers, a few comments. Wolnik had a spectacular singing voice — there were occasions when you could distinguish it from the rest of the ensemble and it was just a delight. Harmann was quite fun to watch on the stage with both her movement and dancing, although I’m not quite sure about the blue sparkly lipstick in the last number. Lastly, it is important for all the ensemble to remember to have fun out there. In the final number I could see the obvious fun that they were having, but there some of the numbers where they were seemingly concentrating more on getting the smiles right and the moves right. Remember to have fun out there.

The production was choreographed by Kimberly Krol (FB). The dancing was good, but some of the ensemble numbers could have used a touch more precision to give them a bit more oomphf. However, overall, the look and (to use a DCI term) general-effect were well-served by the choreography. Music was provided by an on-stage 5 piece orchestra under the music direction of Tammy Hall (FB). Hall was not there at our show; on the keyboards and leading the orchestra was Grace Renaud/FB. Rounding out the orchestra were Keith Leung/FB (Reeds); Aaron Priskorn (FB) (Trumpet); Ben Brown/FB (Bass), and Daria Johnson (FB) (Drums/Percussion).

Moving to the production side of things: remember how I said the production had high talent. This high talent compensated for a low production budget and facility limitations. The set design, from what were were told by the director (who designed it), was under $1000. There was a large (artificial) piano, a multi-tier musical base, and a chaise/banquette (moved up from the audience), together with some projections that were the sole mechanism of establishing place.  This is understandable given the budget, but the show would really benefit from stronger sets and better projections. Richard Gutierrez/FB‘s costume design (assisted by Myriah Gross (FB) (Costumer) and Rhonda Coles (Wardrobe Supervisor)) was similarly low-budget, but creatively appropriate within that budget. No credit is provided for hair and makeup — which generally worked well, although the wigs at times could use  a little better seating. The lighting design of Colin Johnson was similarly hampered: the Great Star Theatre only had lights on the side of the stage, no proper spot booth, no uplights and minimal proscenium lights. It reminded me of the early days of Nobel Middle School. Still, they did the best with what they had. The theatre space (Great Star Theatre) similarly hampered the sound design of Lisa Lash. The performers were all adequately amplified, but the hard-surface nature of the space (walls are undampered cinderblock, and there are limited speakers) resulted in a muffled sound. Rounding out the production credits are:  Richard Gutierrez/FB [Production Manager]; Liz Matos (FB) [Stage Manager]; Jon Rosen (FB) [Projection Design]; Lou Fischer [Photography]; Shaina Elster [House Manager]; and Danny Williams [Marketing].

This is the last weekend to catch The Boy From Oz at Landmark Musical Theatre (FB). Tickets are available through Goldstar as well as Brown Paper Tix.

Dining Notes: Before the show, we ate next door at Bund Shanghai Restaurant (Yelp), 640 Jackson Street. In one word: Yum! They were very accommodating of our dietary gotchas.

* 🎭 🎭 🎭 *

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) and the  Hollywood Pantages (FB); my subscription at  The Colony Theatre (FB) has gone dormant, and REP East (FB) has seemingly gone dark for 2016. Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: Tonight we will be seeing The Last 5 Years at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) (FB).  May 21 brings Los Angeles: Now and Then (FB), a new musical at LA City College (FB) from Bruce Kimmel. The last weekend of May has HOLDs for the MoTAS Outing to the Jethawks, and for I Only Have Eyes for You at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre (FB).

That brings us to June. June is the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), and I’ve already written about the shows I plan to see, as well as suggestions to the Fringe regarding viewing the audience as a customer. Our Fringe schedule is as follows:

Whew. July brings us back to conventional theatre, with Beautiful at the  Hollywood Pantages (FB) and the Western Corps Connection (FB) the first weekend, a HOLD for Grey Gardens at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB); the second weekend, The Little Mermaid at  Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB); the third weekend, Weird Al Yankovic at the Hollywood Bowl (FB) and Operaworks (FB) Opera Re-Constructed at CSUN; the fourth weekend, a mid-week Hollywood Bowl (FB) concert of Wynton Marsalis and Aaron Copeland, and a HOLD for Armadillo Necktie at The Group Rep (FB) the last weekend.  As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.