Celebration Theatre has landed a coup with the West Coast premiere of “The Boy From Oz,” and what a festive party it's throwing.
A 2004 hit on Broadway, where it won Hugh Jackman a Tony Award, “Oz” is at best a serviceable jukebox tuner, Martin Sherman and Nick Enright’s libretto workmanlike.
Yet rethinking the property in intimate terms transcends its limitations, creating a salon from which legendary singer-songwriter Peter Allen (played by Andrew Bongiorno, a find) narrates his life story.
The production starts in Allen’s early days in Australia, with Michayla Brown winningly playing young Peter. We meet his alcoholic dad (Michael Taylor Gray), devoted mum (the wonderful Kelly Lester) and early show-business travails with performing partner Chris (Marcus S. Daniel).
A brush with Judy Garland (Bess Motta) at a nightclub transforms Allen’s career and his life. There's the marriage to Liza Minnelli (Jessica Pennington), the realization of a gay identity, the standards he wrote for others and eventually his evolution into the flamboyant showman in Hawaiian shirts before AIDS enters the picture.
Allen’s music, superbly overseen by music director Bryan Blaskie, aptly propels the proceedings. Director Michael A. Shepperd applies a light yet specific touch, and his crackerjack forces outdo themselves. Whether Michael Mullen’s magnificent costume parade, Derrick McDaniels’ mordant lighting or choreographer Janet Roston’s superlative dances, this is first-rate theater.
Bongiorno, who makes the entire audience feel as if he’s addressing us individually, is a star on the ascendant. Double-cast Gray as Allen's manager is a savvy move, and Lester, nuanced and invested, provides the show’s poignant heart.
Motta only approximates the tics that marked Garland in the '60s, but then she starts singing and jaws drop. Pennington is more visually than vocally like Minnelli, but her chops and moves shine like polished amber.
Their colleagues, including Michael Mittman as lover Greg and Nathan Mohebbi as Mark Herron, provide gorgeous choral harmonies. The Radio City Music Hall number featuring Daniel, Erica Hanrahan-Ball, Chelsea Martin and Shanta' Marie Robinson as Rockettes is riotous.
From the opening “The Lives of Me” to “I Honestly Love You” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” to the phantasmagoric “I Go to Rio” curtain call, "The Boy From Oz" is a joyous, sensitive, electrifying benchmark for this company.
“The Boy From Oz,” Celebration Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 19. $40-$45. (323) 957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
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