It was entirely appropriate that, on October 16, 2003, The Boy from Oz became the first Australian musical to reach Broadway. The show, which played for two years in Sydney after opening there in 1998, tells the life story of Peter Allen, the Australian-born singer/songwriter who achieved his greatest fame in New York, even starring in his own Broadway musical, Legs Diamond, in 1988. That show opened to disastrous reviews, but the notices for The Boy from Oz were more favorable, particularly with regard to the star, Hugh Jackman, the Australian film actor who had also previously performed musicals in Australia and London. Critics had less use for the rest of the show, however. Allen's biography has certain advantages and disadvantages as a stage vehicle. It is certainly full of dramatic event, as the singer rises from humble beginnings to television success in Australia, then is taken under the wing of Judy Garland and marries her daughter, Liza Minnelli, later developing a cabaret career in the U.S. that culminates in performances at Radio City Music Hall, before dying of AIDS. But for a general audience likely to know Allen, if at all, only through the songs he wrote, among them the Olivia Newton-John hit "I Honestly Love You," he is in danger of being overshadowed by his better-known mother-in-law and wife. And that's where the charismatic Jackman comes in, balancing out that equation with his performing verve. On record, of course, one gets only the songs, not the story. So, the original Broadway cast album of The Boy from Oz is essentially a Peter Allen greatest-hits collection, as sung by Jackman, with appearances by Isabel Keating as Garland, and Stephanie J. Block as Minnelli. Thankfully, Allen's music, which has been shoe-horned into the plot in the same way that ABBA's was in Mamma Mia!, works much better than ABBA's does; some of it was actually written as Broadway show music, and most of the rest might as well have been. It's better just to forget that Judy Garland died before the songs Keating is given to sing were even written, and that Minnelli never sang her songs here, either. Both Keating and Block do credible jobs without resorting to parody. But it's Jackman who is the real focus, and he performs well. Ironically, some of Allen's best-known songs have been given to others: Jarrod Emick, as Allen's boyfriend, sings "I Honestly Love You" (from beyond the grave, as it happens, but let's just forget that, too), and Beth Fowler, as his mother, sings "Don't Cry Out Loud." But Jackman is equally convincing on the up-tempo songs such as "I Go to Rio," and the ballads he does get to perform. The album deletes one song heard on-stage, "Sure Thing Baby," and adds a "bonus track" not actually performed in the show: the autobiographical "Tenterfield Saddler." Since the latter is one of Allen's best songs, and certainly his most personal, it's hard to complain about that. It's only too bad no place was found for the song in the production.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
|The Boy from Oz, musical play|