At one telling moment in his fascinating, ticket-driving new solo show, "Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway," the impossibly handsome Australian action-movie star gives us a snapshot of his Down Under adolescence. "I'd come home from playing rugby," he says, "and I'd eat three meat pies in about 30 seconds."
With his masculinity thus firmly established — and when you're a bulked-up Wolverine, your macho bona fides are unassailable by anyone within roaring distance of Broadway — Jackman then proceeds to describe sitting down in front of his Aussie television set and watching old song-and-dance movies. Before you know it, he is sashaying around the stage of the Broadhurst Theatre to"Singin' in the Rain,"or, at another moment, appearing in golden pants and, in the persona of the late Australian entertainer Peter Allen, sitting in the lap of a clearly delighted gay man in the audience.
Across the years, many great variety stars have fused onstage personas from a mix of macho cool and warm accessibility. And they've learned to please all kinds of people. But it's hard to think of another performer of Jackman's generation better able to shape-shift from telling warm stories about his family to telling a stagehand to "get the handcuffs ready" after a woman of a certain age in the front row appears ripe for a little adventure. The enthusiasm of his audience — gay men and middle-aged women being the prime but hardly exclusive demographic — is a sight to behold.
Jackman could do none of this if he were not Australian. If his strikingly simple new show, which opened Thursday night and is commanding hundreds of dollars for prime seats, has an uber-text, it is the uniquely Australian mantra that combines both a zest for life and that inherent, disarming Aussie sense of self-deprecation: "Have a go."
Such a spirit clearly has informed Jackman, a musical-theater geek at heart who was lucky enough to become such a massive movie star that he has a heft that's currently peerless in the Broadway landscape. And he knows how to play it like no one else. Theater people love him because, unlike most movie stars, he can really perform the "Rock Island" patter from "The Music Man" and sing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," which opens his show. And the rest of the globe has not only heard of him, it regards him as as alpha a Hollywood male as ever roared.
That renown, which hangs on Jackman with formidable ease, does not help with, say, "Soliloquy" from "Carousel," a number that he performs with bravura technique and charm but not the undercurrent of a small-time loser. Jackman, whose life by his own admission is filled with happiness and a supportive family, does not come with the edge that informed, say, Judy Garland or his hero Allen. Nothing, it feels, could ever touch Jackman. That's not a problem when he's doing "One Night Only," but when it comes to the legit Broadway repertory, his invulnerability has dangers. He'll have to think about that when he does the"Les Miserables" movie.
Jackman pushes all that back with charm and chops. Crucially, the 43-year-old star is doing his "Back on Broadway," which features the star, a small company of pretty female dancers and an onstage orchestra, in his prime. The genre has frequently been reserved for those past that moment. But not here. Jackman even uses his clout — and clear dedication to his home country — to bring out not just a predictable didgeridoo but also a group of Australian Aborigine performers. With his arms clamped around vocalist Olive Knight, Jackman advocates for their needs in a country that has only recently apologized for their longtime mistreatment.
Even as his video shows the Outback — raw, beautiful, strong, rugged — Jackman is singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." Something for everyone indeed.
"Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway" runs through Dec. 30 at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St., New York; broadway.com