Now in its 20th year in an industry noted for its fickleness, The Production Company has a special spot in its heart for one of the few successful Australian musicals, The Boy From Oz, the story of legendary entertainer Peter Allen. From its beginnings in 1998 with a young and charismatic Todd McKenney in the lead role, through its Broadway incarnation starring that other boy from Oz, Hugh Jackman, it’s fitting that The Boy is back where it all started, at the State Theatre in Melbourne.
Times change, and neither McKenney nor Jackman would suit the role now, as they have gone onto many other triumphs, and it’s time for a new generation to bring Peter’s story to life. It’s a heavy responsibility, and Rohan Browne brings credit to himself and the memory of the great Peter Allen in the lead role. Which is not to say that everything goes smoothly – on opening night I felt that both the audience and Browne took a while to warm to the role, and while Browne doesn’t have the vocal chops of McKenney or Jackman, he is still a triple threat who sings, acts and dances his way into our hearts by the end of the first act.
Browne shines especially as a dancer, and it’s a pleasure just to watch him move his lanky frame around the stage and his dance routines are spectacular. Once he establishes himself in the role, it becomes clear that he also has the acting talent to get inside the complex mega-talent that was Peter Allen.
The first half of the show is something of a slow burn, setting up storylines and more famous songs to dazzle us after interval, and there were a few technical hitches with microphones suddenly failing, but the audience was a forgiving one.
While the first half introduces us to the always mesmerizing Caroline O’Connor as Judy Garland (this chameleon instantly channels her character and is always utterly convincing), talented newcomer Loren Hunter as Liza, and simply marvellous veteran actor Robyn Arthur as Peter’s mum Marion (a role she has made her own.) It’s the second half of the show that reminds us what a great musical this is.
That’s when the drama and pathos of the story enters our hearts, as Peter discovers his true gay identity and falls in love with the caring Texan, Greg Connell, (rising star Maxwell Simon) – and the two share a solid and loving relationship. However, this is the era of AIDS, and when Greg succumbs to the disease, it hits Peter hard, but his Aussie resilience emerges and he keeps going, surviving both disasters and triumphs.
By the end of the show, Rohan Browne has us all in the palm of his hand – there wouldn’t have been one person in the audience who didn’t fall in love with Peter Allen, (who remained recognizably Australian despite living his life in America). Browne is a dab hand with the witty Peter Allen lines, and his timing and delivery is spot on.
In the double smaller roles as Peter’s manager Dee Anthony and trouble father Dick, Francis Greenslade puts in his usual polished performance.
On opening night young Peter was played by Hudson Sharp, who exhibited a few initial opening night nerves that affected his pitch in his first scene, but nerves soon settled and he gave a natural, charming and believable performance, and made a wonderful duo with his stage Mum Robyn Arthur. She gave us Marion’s delightful warmth and proved that she still has excellent vocal chops.
The hard working chorus was fabulous, and musical director Michael Tyack’s orchestra gave splendid support.
The Boy is back! And, overall, Tyack and director Jason Langley have every right to feel proud of this production.