Jackman Triumphs Arm in Arm With Camp and Kitsch

It’s a pleasure to report how terrific Hugh Jackman’s performance is in The Boy From Oz. Very rarely, perhaps once or twice if we’re very lucky, certain supreme musical stars are embraced absolutely by an audience. Mr. Jackman is one of them. He stops the show, and no wonder. From start to blazing finish, the audience at the Imperial Theatre is at his feet.

Charm helps, and Mr. Jackman has it unself-consciously in abundance. He’s a natural. But more than anything he achieves in his electrifying portrait of the outrageous entertainer Peter Allen, he communicates the joy he gets from being up there onstage. It’s infectious. He can sing and dance, of course; he can play the maracas. He’s the only performer I’ve seen who takes his shirt off during a Broadway show to screams from the girls in the balcony. When you consider he’s playing a man who was as camp as a row of tents, that’s some achievement. I’ll raise the ante a little further and say quite simply that Mr. Jackman is giving the best performance you could wish to see in any musical.

I always think understatement is best, don’t you?

But that’s the way he strikes me, or anyone who knows anything about theater. The star of The Boy From Oz is an Australian playing an Australian, incidentally. Aussies are the biggest bullshit-detectors on earth. At the same time, they’ve always enjoyed the company of that magically unserious duo, Camp and Kitsch. Think of the sequined bird of paradise, Dame Edna Everidge, asking us all to wave our gladioli in the air. Or the campy Aussie films Strictly Ballroom , Muriel’s Wedding , Priscilla Queen of the Desert. America could be forgiven for thinking that the carefree, manly Aussie likes nothing more than dressing up in a hula skirt as he breezily throws another shrimp on the barbie.

And why not? Life can be fun that way. Camp and its sister in exaggerated artifice, kitsch, are the moving spirits behind The Boy From Oz. The likable show pulls off the same, near-impossible balancing act that Peter Allen-who died of AIDS at age 48 in 1992-did in his flamboyant life. By retelling Allen’s melodramatic life story through his own sentimental, vintage songs, Mr. Jackman and Co. have deftly sent up the over-the-top glitz of an escapist showbiz world, yet found a touching innocence in the wreckage.

It’s a shame that a few reviewers have missed the point by taking a sour political stance toward the show. It’s just a show . Peter Allen was criticized by the gay community for not becoming their poster boy in the 1980’s. Why take it out on him now? The happy-go-lucky entertainer wasn’t the man to play the role of gay activist. Martin Sherman has created a smart adaptation of the original book by Nick Enright. The dramatist of Bent , one of the most memorable plays written about the persecution of gays, Mr. Sherman surely needs no reminder about the plight of homosexuals in the AIDS era. Even so, the surprise of the good-natured production is that it can be hard-edged when it wants to be.

“What’s the problem?” Allen’s manager screams into the phone, trying to book his new client at the Hawaiian-shirt mecca of the Copacabana nightclub. “He comes across as a fag? Well, he is a fag. That’s why he comes across as one.”

“Ambiguity’s clever, but you don’t look comfortable on a fence,” Peter Allen’s male lover, Greg, tells him in the show. “That’s why gay audiences consider you an Uncle Tom. And straights think you’re a screaming queen. Keep it up and you’ve got no future.”

In fact, Peter Allen appealed to everyone. Mr. Jackman knows how he did it. In his fantastic enthusiasm and flash, he threatened no one. Our hero was married for a while to Liza Minnelli; his mother-in-law was Judy Garland! “They’re like the Waltons with sequins,” goes the witty line in the show. In its clever essentials, The Boy From Oz is about the extremes of showbiz and narcissism. When, toward the close of the show, the dying Peter is re-united with Liza, they sing the touching ballad, “You and Me” (“We Wanted It All”). As Noël Coward put it famously, “Never underestimate the potency of cheap music.” It’s a lovely, dopey song. But the two showbiz legends are actually singing this lyric:

Look how all our dreams came true

See how I’ve got me

And baby you’ve got you.

Wait a minute! Shouldn’t it be, “See how I’ve got you, and you’ve got me”? But not if they’re in love with themselves. The show’s an artful send-up that way. You know it from the opening scene, set in 1950’s small-town Australia, when Peter Allen introduces us to his childhood self, “Little Petey,” played by Mitchel David Federan. Now, those of you who are familiar with my malevolent mind will know that a tubby, all-dancing, all-singing child actor with slicked-back hair would usually compel me to shoot the little darling between his star-struck eyes, or stab him with a fork. But the show is ahead of us. “Every small town has one!” goes Allen’s line about his precocious self, bringing affectionate laughter. And let’s hand it to the kid. He’s the first child performer I’ve seen who can do multiple backflips and an impersonation of Ann Miller.

But then, The Boy From Oz is a show that offers us a Chinese version of “Waltzing Matilda.” It’s sung in the Hong Kong Hilton’s Eagle’s Nest Lounge on Peter Allen’s dizzy road to fame in the 1960’s, where he meets Judy Garland. “It takes a good coma to keep a sense of proportion,” she tells him wisely. The slightly ghoulish thing is that when Garland, impersonated by the super Isabel Keating, appears for the first time, some of the audience applauded as if she were still alive. She’s back! (Or maybe she never went away.)

The relief is that neither Garland nor Liza Minnelli are played by men. That would be going too far. (The excellent Stephanie J. Block plays Ms. Minnelli.) “Well!” Peter Allen announces. “Can a simple boy from a small Australian town find love and happiness with the teenage daughter of a world-famous Hollywood star?” All we can say here is that his life has met a force of nature stronger than a tidal wave at Bondi Beach. Or, as he puts it poetically about Cupid’s whimsical ways, “That creep with the diaper and bow and arrow aimed one right at the ticker.”

Not by camp alone. Whatever its showbiz excesses, The Boy From Oz has a good heart, like the best of Peter Allen’s ballads. Jarrod Emick’s contribution as Greg, the lover who dies of AIDS, is true and dignified. So, too, the lovely performance of Beth Fowler, who brought more than a few sobs from the audience with her version of “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” The show has a linchpin of expertise that keeps it all on the boil. Director Philip W. McKinley’s creative team represents the work of Broadway’s best: Robin Wagner (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), Donald Holder (lighting). And while we’re happily on the road to Rio, a cheer for Joey McKneely’s choreography and the sexiest chorus line on Broadway.

The Boy From Oz isn’t the biggest musical to come to town, but it sure seems that way. If our old friends Camp and Kitsch are somehow not for you, go directly to jail. But when all’s said and nicely done, you’d be crazy to miss the brilliant performance of Hugh Jackman.