Let’s Hear It For The Boys 🎩 “The Boy from Oz” @ Celebration

The Boy from Oz (Celebration Theatre)userpic=theatre_musicals

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, …

That’s the opening of Dicken’s The Tale of Two Cities… and an opening I’ve used before. This time, let’s call this The Tale of Two Boys. Both Boys, as it happens, are from Oz. They happen to be from two different cities. They both happen to be excellent, each in its own way. And there, my friends, is the real tale.

Back in May, we had two theatres, one in Los Angeles, and one in San Francisco, both staging what was essentially 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). I say “essentially”, because they opened a day apart, about the time it would take to drive from one theatre to the other during rush hour.

We had originally been planning to go to see Celebration Theatre (FB) version of The Boy from Oz in LA, which I had learned about back at the beginning of the year. But then I was scheduling a trip to the Bay Area for our daughter’s graduation, and what pops up but another version of The Boy from Oz: this one from  Landmark Musical Theatre (FB). So we scheduled that and released our informal hold date for Oz in LA. Then we saw (a) the production in San Francisco, and (b) the rave reviews that Celebration was getting, and we decided to compare and contrast. On paper, the presenting companies and productions  were very different. Landmark was a new company (their 2nd musical), in a large theatre (399 seats) that hadn’t hosted a musical before, with minuscule budget, weak lighting and sound infrastructure, and a Bay Area acting pool.  Celebration, on the other hand, was an established company with loads of musical experience, in a much smaller theatre (55 seats) with better infrastructure, the very talented Los Angeles acting pool, and a strong publicity machine.

You know what? As I said before, both productions were excellent. Each had their own unique strengths and their own weaknesses, and neither had weaknesses that reached the level of significant problems.

Here’s the synopsis of the show I wrote less than a month ago:

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.

The Celebration version, under the direction of Michael A. Shepperd (FB) [assisted by Kyle Cooper (FB)] and choreography of Janet Roston (FB) [assisted by Michael Quiett/FB] had a distinctly stronger staging and spectacular dance. Although Celebration’s space was smaller and had fewer set pieces, they made extremely good use of the pieces they had (more on that in a bit). More significantly, their level of dance was head and shoulders above San Francisco in terms of both design and execution.  San Francisco’s dancing was good, but lacked precision. Here, the dance was spot-on, energetic, precise, and just… wow. The Rockettes scene and the Fosse scene will just blow you away with the dance. I think this was a product of having a much stronger dance talent pool available, and having stronger dance experience working with that crew to design the dance. About my only dance quibble was: where were the taps, especially in the opening number. When we are seeing tap dance, we should be hearing tap dance. As for the staging, well, it oozed sex in a way that only Hollywood and West Hollywood can. San Francisco was tame compared to the sexiness here.

The Boy From Oz - Publicity PhotosThe Celebration production stared Andrew Bongiorno (FB) as Peter Allen. From the very start, I noticed Bongiorno’s charisma with the audience, and my wife commented that he was just giving off a very sexy vibe. Whereas Dan Seda (FB), Landmark’s Peter and their only AEA performer, was good with a wonderful singing voice, and a warm and accessible performance, Bongiorno was just outstanding — strong vocals, strong movement, according to my wife oozing testosterone, flirty, playful, and just everything you would expect Peter Allen to be. Further, unlike Seda, he didn’t have to fake an Aussie accent — he was from Victoria, Australia. No “shrimps on the barbee” here. He did a particularly great job on “Only an Older Woman”.

Another strong performer in the Celebration version was Bess Motta (FB) as Judy Garland. Motta captured Garland’s mannerisms and voice and look with turning the performance into caricature. When I saw the Landmark production with  Connie Champagne (FB) as Garland, something bothered me. The face seemed too stiff, the movement too stylized.  Motta made me realize the difference by being real — by being able to portray both the warmth and the hatred behind Garland. She came across as a real Garland, and her performance made me see the difference between becoming a character vs. impersonating a character.

On the other hand, there was Jessica Pennington (FB)’s Liza Minnelli. Although Pennington gave a very strong performance, with excellent vocals and emoting, she just didn’t become Minnelli (especially in the first act; she had grown a little bit more into the role in the second act). Landmark’s Liza Minnelli, Kat Robichaud (FB), did a stronger job of capturing the basic look of Minnelli well, and had the dance moves (especially in the Fosse-style number) down well. Robichaud also did a great job of capturing Minnelli’s singing style.  Robichaud wasn’t perfect — she needed a pinch more kookiness in Minnelli’s early days. Minnelli is a hard part to cast right and get right. Landmark casted for the young Minnelli — the kooky teenager of Flora the Red Menace and The Sterile Cuckoo. They got that right, but that gave them difficulty in the second act when you need the much older Minnelli who has started to see it all. Celebration cast for the older Minnelli, which made the first act Minnelli completely off the game. So, although both were good, I’ll give the Minnelli point to the Bay Area team.

There’s one other point where I felt the Bay Area was stronger in terms of performance: Allen’s lover Greg Connell (played by Ivan Hardin (FB)). Although Celebration’s Greg, Michael Mittman (FB) gave an excellent performance with strong vocals and emotions, Hardin’s Greg had that magical strong stage presence and a very engaging way about him, with a spectacular singing voice, and looks that were just … I normally don’t say this, but wow.

If you’re keeping score in the lead roles, all the performances were good, but we have two points given to Celebration for spot on strong casting, and two given to Landmark for the same thing.

There was one other significant casting strength for Landmark: their young Peter Allens, who were excellent tap dancers and believably young versions of their older Allen. Yes, they did tap — tap up a storm, as a matter of fact. Celebration went a different direction on casting, choosing the young Michayla Brown. The young Ms. Brown was a talented performer, but wasn’t believably a younger version of their Peter Allen, which impacted the suspension of disbelief. She also, alas, didn’t have taps.

Rounding out some of the named characters were Marcus S. Daniel (FB)’s Chris Allen, Michael Taylor Gray‘s Dee, and Kelly Lester (FB)’s Marion Woolnough.  All gave strong performances, in particular, Lester’s impressive performance in “Don’t Cry Out Loud”.  Landmark’s Maron ( Amy Meyers (FB)) was good, but Lester just had the right note of authenticity in her portrayal. Daniel gave a strong performance as Allen’s “Brother” Chris; although the size difference elminated the belief that they were brothers I’ll note Daniel was a hoot in the Rockette’s number. You’ll just have to see it. Gray’s Dee was suitably grizzled.

Rounding out the cast as other named characters and ensemble members were Nathan Mohebbi (FB) (Mark and others), Erica Hanrahan-Ball (FB) (Karen and others), Chelsea Martin (FB) (Linelle and others), and Shanta’ Marie Robinson (FB) (Shena and others).  It was in the latter three ensemble members — Erica, Chelsea, and Shanta — that Celebration just took this production over the top. Landmark had a larger ensemble with mostly weaker talent (they had one good ensemble member). Celebration’s, although smaller, was supersized in talent and dance. The small size of the Celebration space permitted the audience to hear the voices on these three — all were just great. Strong — perhaps exceptional — singers, sexy dancers, with a charisma that showed they were having fun. Oh, and could they smile. These girls are one of the highlights of the show. About my only comment was that there was a uniformity of dancer builds, but that’s how it was in that period.

Mat J. Hayes and Alli Miller (FB) were the swings. Marcus S. Daniel (FB) was the dance captain.

The on-stage band at the Celebration was smaller than the Landmark production, but had significantly better sound. I think that is because Celebration used the right instruments. In other words, Landmark had separate reed and trumpet players. Celebration combined the two with one player, but went with a saxophone instead of a trumpet. Celebration also had the string player cover both guitar and bass; Landmark tried to get away with only the bass. The net result: the Celebration had music that just blasted you away and had the full-size Broadway sound. Credit goes to the musical director, Bryan Blaskie (FB), on keyboard, and his musicians: Omar D. Brancato (bass/guitar), Noelle Fabian (saxophone/clarinet), and Stephen Dizon/FB (drums).

Turning now to the creative and production team. The scenic design is one area where there was the starkest differentiation between the two companies, owing to the difference in facilities. Both had limitations — Celebration in terms of a space that was perhaps one-third of Landmarks, with no flyspace; Landmark with a large space in an cavernous hall with concrete walls and musical theatre lighting at the middle-school level. Each made their space work, but in different ways. Landmarks showcase was a large baby grand piano (mostly styrofoam) with large musical note risers, and some projections on the back curtains. Celebration’s scenic design, by Yuri Okahana, was very different. Okahana had an upright piano — perhaps a spinnet. There were some stairs on the side that served as tables and such when needed, but it was mostly the actors front and center that created the impression of where you were. This mostly worked, although I found myself longing at times for Landmark’s projections to give a better idea of where we were in the world — the outback, Hong Kong, New York, etc.  Both worked, but very very different conceptions of their space. Celebration was significantly stronger in terms of sound (design by Eric Snodgrass) and light (design by Derrick McDaniel). Here the significantly stronger facilities and experience paid off handsomely, although Celebration’s space is limited in terms of spotlights, which require a moving mirror system. Landmark could use a real spotlight, although they didn’t have a sufficient light to be able to tightly focus. Another production aspect in which Celebration was significantly stronger was in the costumes of Michael Mullen. Landmark’s costumes were low-budget. Creative, but low-budget. Celebration’s costumes gave no idea of the budget: they were flashy, they were sexy, they were seemingly era-appropriate… on or off, they just worked right and made the characters shinge. Similarly, Bryon Batista‘s wigs and hair just worked right and didn’t appear to be wigs.  Rounding out the production credits were: Michael O’Hara (Properties Design), Jennifer Leigh Sears (Production Stage Manager), and Jillian Mayo (Alternate Stage Manager).

Celebration Theatre (FB)’s The Boy From Oz has been extended into July, and you should get your tickets now (through the Celebration website) before they sell out. I’d mention Goldstar,  but they are already sold out. This is an excellent production from an excellent company, and you should go see it. As for the San Francisco production: we saw the next to last performance, and they have already closed their short run. If you’re in the Bay Area and reading this, you missed your chance. C’mon down to LA and see this great production, and then make a note to support Landmark Musical Theatre (FB)’s future productions of The Drowsy Chaperone and The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd. As for what is in Celebration’s future: they are about to announce their next season, so stay tuned…

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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: Ah, June. Wonderful 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/June schedule is as follows (for shows in the past, ✍ indicates writeup is in progress; ✒ indicates writeup is complete and links to the writeup):

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 … currently nothing for the weekend. As of right now, August is completely open. One weekend has a bar mitzvah, and there are a few holds for show, but nothing is booked. Late August may see us looking at shows down San Diego/Escondido for one weekend. The best of the shows available — or at least the most interesting — is Titanic from Moonlight Stages. 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.