The Boy From Oz

The Boy From Oz

Original Cast Recording

Decca Broadway

Reviewing a Broadway cast recording without having seen even a road company production of the show is, perhaps, not the most desired way of doing things. Yet if such an album is not supposed to appeal to those who haven’t yet seen the show, why release it outside New York at all? Hell, why sell it anywhere outside the lobby of the theater? I can recall growing up a young theater lover who had to get to know a lot of his favorite shows by listening to their albums and reading their books before getting a chance to actually see them.

Why put together a musical using the songs of the late Peter Allen (1944-1992) to tell the story of his life? Three reasons come immediately to mind. First of all, the songs are pretty good. Allen co-wrote “Between the Moon and New York City (Arthur’s Theme)” and “I Go to Rio,” among other songs you know. Maybe not Cole Porter, Frank Loesser or even Bart Howard caliber — make that definitely not — but expressive and filled with hooks.

Second, his life story has some fascinating elements. He was discovered by Judy Garland and married, despite his “sexual ambiguity,” to…wait for it… Liza Minnelli from the late ’60s until the start of the ’70s. By the end of that decade he’d attracted something of a cult following as a performer, especially in New York, but never broke through to wide-reaching popular success. Today he has been mostly forgotten in the US, except perhaps by connoisseurs of the flop Broadway musical, of which his Legs Diamond is a delicious example. He remained something of an icon in his native Australia, where this show was first developed, however (see interview in below link).

The third reason is to feature the talented Hugh Jackman as Allen. As any who were lucky enough to see his performance in the Royal National Theatre production of Oklahoma! or the filmed version of same know, Jackman’s range is quite remarkable. The man who simmers and glowers so convincingly as Wolverine in the X-Men films is just as comfortable and disarming belting out a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Jackman sings beautifully here, and although his co-star Isabel Keating never makes you forget Judy Garland, Stephanie J. Block as Minnelli happily gets past her similar sticking point. But for my money, Jarrod Emick almost steals the album with his open, straightforward rendition of Allen’s “I Honestly Love You,” made a hit, of course, by Olivia Newton-John. Emick is an actor whose name is new to me (although I see in the promotional material he won a Tony for the ’90s Damn Yankees revival). Here he plays Greg, the love of the latter part of Allen’s life.

Why, then, is this promising combination ultimately unsatisfying, at least as an album? I point the finger at the arrangements and orchestration, which are so dusty as to conjure images of a conductor shuffling to the podium in a walker. It can be argued, I suppose, that they were trying to emulate the sounds of Allen’s late-’70s peak. Certainly it is evocative of recordings such as film composer and arranger Ralph Burns’ soundtrack to All That Jazz, in which Allen’s “Everything Old Is New Again”–also included here–was memorably featured. But…well, there’s a reason why that style never progressed much beyond the cabarets of New York and why you don’t hear much of it today. It built upon the big band sound of the ’30s and ’40s without (usually) performers or material to equal that golden age, and a tint equal parts ironic and sentimental that was, to coin a phrase, as camp as a row of pink frilly tents.

Still, the fine cast just about recovers the material from the arms of those clichéd arrangements, and I think it likely the show plays better on stage than on record.

The Boy from Oz: • Hugh Jackman Interview:

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