The marketing for Uptown Players’ The Boy From Oz—the first regional production since the show closed on Broadway with Hugh Jackman in 2004—relies heavily on the face and body of Alex Ross. It makes sense to sell the show with Ross’ dazzling white smile and tight, silver lamé pants, since the handsome actor is onstage nearly constantly. Yet while Ross turns in a tireless performance as the Aussie singer/songwriter Peter Allen, he isn’t who Uptown should be promoting. It should be Janelle Lutz as Judy Garland and Sarah Elizabeth Smith as Liza Minnelli, both of whom manage to capture the essence of these famous women without sliding into caricature.
I can think of two reasons why it’s been 10 years since this show was professionally produced: it’s a campy mess of a musical, and good luck finding a leading man who can bring the kind of sparkling charisma necessary to make it bearable. Jackman (who I saw tackle this on Broadway) seemed to genuinely be having the time of his life flouncing around in sequins and feathers as the flashy Allen, an Oscar-winning composer known for such hits as “I Honestly Love You” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” He worked the room with an effortless charm, which helped disguise the awkwardness of the show’s retrospective construct and the jukebox-blandness of Allen’s score. Ross, though undeniably talented and gifted with incredible stamina, ultimately comes off as artificial. He’s working—hard—instead of working the room.
As we’re guided from Allen’s tumultuous childhood in Tenterfield, Australia (wee Westin Brown tappity-taps adorably as young Peter) to his show business breakthrough as one half of the Allen Brothers, it’s all very nice and perfunctory. But it’s not until Allen is performing in a Hong Kong hotel and catches the eye of the legendary Judy Garland, whom he persuades to sing a bit, that the show really wakes up.
Lutz looks eerily like Judy thanks to Coy Covington’s flawless makeup and wig design (for the ladies, anyway—the men might as well be wearing mops). She perches on the piano bench with the microphone poised before her lips, smoothes her gold brocade suit (Suzi Cranford’s groovy costumes are superb), and launches into a throaty, wistful rendition of Allen’s “All I Wanted Was the Dream.” From there on, every toss of the hand and jut of the chin evokes Ms. Garland at her most acidly regal, with Lutz sliding her consonants and extending her vowels to add a hint—just a hint—of Judy to what’s already one of the most powerful voices in DFW.
When Allen, now Judy’s opening act in New York, first bumps into Liza, it’s a meet-cute that could groan its way into any romantic comedy. Book writers Martin Sherman and Nick Enright don’t seem to know how to handle the still very-much-alive Ms. Minnelli, who Allen married and later divorced before she hit it big with Cabaret. She has some of the clumsiest lines in an already clunky show, and is sketched as a naïve joke to Allen’s flamboyant sexuality.
Smith, who enters in a whirlwind of insecurity and eyeliner, somehow manages to find the humanity and honesty in the character of Liza. In Smith’s nuanced performance, the larger-than-life legend is a confused woman yearning for both professional and personal success. She’s crushed when she only attains one.
Cheryl Denson, often the go-to director of flashy musical spectacles, here pumps up both the flash and spectacle as much as she can. Unfortunately, all the sequins and feathers in the world can’t disguise what is ultimately a weak show.