Monday, September 25, 2006

Hugh Jackman channels Peter Allen


Saturday night's performance of the Australian Arena Spectacular version of "The Boy from Oz" at the Sydney Entertainment Centre was a triumph. I felt like I'd been in rehearsals for it all week: putting myself into bed at a reasonable hour for several nights in a row to ensure there was no possibility I'd doze off. Not after paying $250 for the ticket.

While I wasn't always believing Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen, there were certainly some times when it seemed like Mr Jackman was channeling the irrepressible spirit of Allen - particularly whenever he flirted with male audience members, or made humorous, gossipy commentary about current celebrities, and those recent celebrity events worthy of Allen's distinctively cheeky, scathing wit, had he still been among us to make comment: Keith Urban and his marriage to Nicole Kidman; Heath Ledger starring in "Brokeback Mountain"; Eric Bana; and even that Hugh Jackman guy (starring as "X-Men"'s Wolverine, and hanging out to audition for James Bond), were favourites.

It was certainly well worth the money spent. Numerous times, I found my cheeks flooding with tears. The way each song was set up to tell a particular aspect of Peter Allen's life, or that of his loved ones, was excellent. These are songs we've heard many times on the radio, and even though I knew that most of them were inspired by aspects of the songwriter's life, watching and hearing them play out in the context of a biographical work really hammers home the emotions within the words.

"When I Get My Name in Lights" is suddenly young Peter's story, as if were never also a highly recognizable Allen song. "All I Wanted was the Dream" and "Quiet Please, There's a Lady on Stage" are the ailing Judy Garland's story. "I'd Rather Leave While I'm in Love" is Liza Minnelli's tearful departure. "I Honestly Love You", so identifiable over the years as an Olivia Newton-John song, suddenly becomes the final farewell from Greg Connell, Peter's dying lover. "Don't Cry Out Loud" becomes an insight into the coping strategies of Peter's mother, Marion Woolnough. "I Still Call Australia Home" brings out the patriotic spirit of the whole audience. And, of course, "Tenterfield Saddler", which turns the whole house into lip-trembling, sniffling wrecks, is a pocket biography of three generations of the Woolnough men. (I understand that the US production omitted "Tenterfield Saddler"; so hard to believe that such a beautiful ballad could be overlooked as something Americans might not understand.)

I was fascinated with the "video content" by Interactive Originals. All of the sets - the neon lights of Times Square and Broadway; the art deco country pub; fireworks over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House; the Allen Brothers performing on an ancient black and white TV console tuned to "Bandstand"; a lone Tenterfield windmill; and so on - were computer generated, and thrown up onto the huge screen behind the performers. This even included the virtual red theatre curtains, which waved ever so slightly in the virtual breeze. While I wouldn't like to see every play, musical and theatrical event having its sets created this way, the novelty certainly enhanced this show.

I had a few weird deja vu experiences watching the show:

* Chrissie Amphlett, who played Judy: when I was a little kid, my grandfather took me down to "the paperboy's house", a weatherboard cottage (in our street: Terry Street, Arncliffe), which was burning down! It was the first and only time I saw firemen wearing those old brass helmets. I'm not sure if Chrissie herself ever lived there, but supposedly her Dad did, and her brother, "the paperboy" - and there was definitely one Amphlett daughter at my school.

* Angela Toohey, who played Liza: she was once Squeaky the Robot in TV's "Johnson and Friends", a kids' show about toys who lived under a bed! I almost got to do an interview with her, and I was allowed to feature her in my old fanzine, Androidz.

* Production Designer, Brian Thomson: in 1988, Brian worked on a theatre-in-education show called Don't Tell Anyone, for which I was commissioned to write the teachers' notes. I spent several hours talking to him about how he'd designed that play's sets. At the time, I had no idea just how many amazing things he'd designed! His name pops up in credits all the time, and it always give me a buzz that I met him before I knew he was famous! :)

Yes, I'm sure this musical will live with me forever, and that's part of the magic of live performances. Owning the program, the keyring, the coffee mug and the CD soundtrack can only serve as reminders that you were once able to be completely immersed in a theatrical experience for several hours of your life.

I certainly don't see enough live theatre these days.

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