Arriving at The Crown on a Saturday night to see The Boy from Oz was a bit like being part of the cast in a musical of your own: enter stage right from the free parking and you walk onto what feels like a stage laden with elaborate and exaggerated props. For those unfamiliar with the rabbit warren of The Crown, it’s disorientating and difficult to find your way around, and you can’t help but feel like you’ve stepped on stage into a mega-glitz musical, Bond movie set, or at the very least, arrived at some tacky Florida resort. Once you finally find your seats in the Crown Theatre, after navigating the casino and various other plush entrances, one can usually relax.
However, being part of the audience for The Boy from Oz means that strange feeling of being personally involved in something big prevails. Because that is exactly what happens: you become part of the show. The Boy from Oz is the life story of Peter Allen (born Peter Woolnough), the flamboyant and exuberant Australian-born singer-songwriter and musician who entertained crowds around the world from the 1960s through to the 1990s. The show starts in the present with Peter Allen (Ethan Jones) dismantling the fourth wall and telling us his life story from his early days in 1940s Armidale, NSW, through to his death in 1992 at his home in San Diego.
The show opens with Peter being carried onstage upon an ostentatious palanquin borne by a group of actors. He takes his place behind the piano, next to the trio of impressive backup singers who he affectionately refers to throughout the show as his “girls” (Carrie Pereira, Melissa Erpen, Sophie Foster), and begins entertaining his audience with an extensive repertoire of songs. Many of these songs seamlessly move us through the story of his life, with props and lighting used to segue between the past and present. His “girls” appear when he is in the present but dissolve by slipping off stage when we move into scenes of the past. Larger-than-life projected images at the back of the stage give us a backdrop to previous times; the sepia main street of his hometown of Tenterfield takes us back to his early days, and the bright neon signs place us in Hong Kong of the 1960s, where Allen worked in a duo act with Chris Allen (a great performance by Benson Jack Anthony).
Other regularly appearing props help set the scene. A chandelier floats down over the white piano that sits centre stage throughout to take us to his home in the US and the personal dramas he has there; the chorus ensemble of dancers and singers, although far more than just ‘props’, take us into the past and tell us the story of Allen’s struggles, and his rise to fame. Lucky Farrell, appearing as the young Peter Allen living in rural NSW, communicates the precociousness and determination of young Allen in his early life in rural Australia, and Casey Edwards is endearing, twangy and comical as his mum Marion. Marion appears throughout the show, both in Australia and the US, reflecting the ongoing presence and support she was to Peter throughout his life.
Many post-Gen-‘X’ers may never have heard of Peter Allen, but they would have at some time heard the song ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, even if only on the Qantas ads (a self-reflexive joke delivered well by Jones during the show). ‘Tenterfield Saddler’ is another that may sound familiar: a moving and beautiful tribute to Peter’s grandfather, his past and his hometown. These two earworms that have endured through many decades attest to Peter’s fame, and as the show progresses, his fascinating story begins to answer the question that post-Gen-‘X’ers watching the show may well have been asking: “why does this guy get his own gig?”
They may also have no idea who Judy Garland and her daughter Liza Minelli (played by Lucy Williamson and Elethea Sartorelli) are; these Hollywood powerhouses of the mid 20th-Century had a huge impact on Allen’s life, both professionally and personally. His association with these two women weaves a thread through the show, including in the ‘Oz’ in the show’s name – a reference not only to Australia, but also a nod to Allen’s obsession with films and Judy Garland, the star of the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz (represented skilfully and powerfully by Williamson). And for older audience members and those in the know, the tributes to each of them may be deeply moving; my dad, an old-fashioned Judy lover, may well have bawled his eyes out at certain stages of the show had he been there.
Now, as positive as I’ve been about this show, I did have one major issue with it. This major complaint was that Ethan Jones as Peter wasn’t on stage at all times! I felt myself anticipating his return, almost holding my breath, whenever he exited. He was the energy and panache of the show which is probably just how Peter Allen himself was on stage. He was incredibly mesmerising and I’m not sure why he isn’t a musical household name and more well-known. At one stage, he made a quip about forgetting the name of Hugh Jackman (Peter Allen in the original iteration of The Boy from Oz), and I feel sure that Hugh couldn’t have done a better job than Jones. He sang, acted and danced beautifully, and never deviated from character – just brilliant. Seeking silver linings of Covid, he is definitely one of them for anyone lucky enough to see the show. At the moment, more ‘unknowns’ are currently given opportunities to showcase their talents in roles usually given to drawcard ‘stars’. We are now treated to seeing more than the usual faces; and often, it seems, these new talents eclipse the old.
Adding to my deep enjoyment of Jones’ performance was the fact that the whole cast was vibrant and entertaining, and looked like they were having a fantastic time. Jack Ryan is a fabulous dancer and his energy and moves exploded the scenes he was in. Benson Jack Anderson as Chris and ‘Ensemble Member’ is also outstanding. His kicks in The Rockettes’ line-up were by far the highest! And although I was conflicted about one overly nationalistic scene (massive Australian flag draped aloft across the stage) when Peter returns to Australia for a homecoming concert, another standout for me was one of the kids in the children’s choir during this rousing rendition of ‘I Still Call Australia Home’. In the front row, on the end, to my right: what a performance, emanating pure joy!
Busy, colourful, flamboyant, over-the-top, full of enjoyably cringey clichés and colloquial Australianisms, The Boy from Oz is a fabulous musical ride. Encapsulating the life of a larger-than-life character in a two-hour musical is a difficult task, but musical director Joe Louis Robinson and director Drew Anthony manage it with apparent ease. Whether you are a fan, or have no idea who Peter Allen was, The Boy from Oz is well worth seeing. If nothing else, just so you can experience the charisma of Ethan Jones, before he inevitably hits the big time!
4/5 Pelicans for the Show; 6/5 Pelicans for Ethan Jones!
The Boy from Oz runs until 7 February at Crown Theatre.
Words by Fiona Marshall
Image courtesy of Platinum Entertainment