As lights went up on “The Boy From Oz” at the Gateway Theater on Oct. 27, the musical’s star Justin Genna leaped and pirouetted toward the front of the stage to applause before standing stone-still and performing a somewhat tuneless song about the many lives of Peter Allen.
The jukebox musical follows the song catalogue of Peter Allen (Genna), plotting his rise to fame in Australia, opening for Judy Garland, marriage to Liza Minnelli and AIDS diagnosis. The book for the musical was written posthumously and has Allen often speaking directly to the audience with jokes and interjections.
“The Boy From Oz” as a written piece suffers from pretty lazy writing. The book loosely ties together strings of mediocre tunes and attempts to plot the entire life of a man in the framework of these songs. This conviction, however, that jukebox musicals have to shape a story around songs not written about that story leads inevitably to unclear and jaunty storytelling. For instance, while “Rio” is an undeniable classic and Allen’s most famous song, following up a death with a song about Rio de Janeiro felt inappropriate.
The voices in the musical often had trouble breaking through the volume of the band. Songs such as “Boy From Oz” failed to give the audience the kind of satisfaction expected from such an upbeat, famous song.
Without even glancing at the artist bios, it is clear Genna is a professionally trained dancer. His lines are impeccable, and one entire review could be dedicated to the way he moved his hips. But Genna’s dancing seemed somewhat out of place when he was sashaying in front of a group of people who could barely even be considered dancers at all.
In the vein of more subtle dynamos, Larissa Kelloway as Marion Woolnough, Peter Allen’s mother, gave the show great maternal energy and even better vocal performances. Kelloway’s performance of “Don’t Cry Out Loud” was one of the high points of the entire show. Leandra Ramm also delivered a surprisingly convincing Judy Garland impression.
In the program, Theatre Rhinoceros listed its mission as to “develop and produce works of theatre that enlighten, enrich, and explore … aspects of our queer community.” In this mission the show was entirely successful. The show is a very famous and commercially successful work of queer theater. Theater Rhinoceros brought the show to San Francisco at low ticket prices and with a cast that seemed truly passionate about the work it was a part of.
A good member of an ensemble is successful in going almost unnoticed — they move as one with their companions. In this production, that ensemble was one of the saving graces of the entire show. The actors in the background at all times seemed overjoyed to be part of the production.
SuzyJane Edwards was funny and charming in her small part as Dee Anthony, Peter’s agent. John Charles Quimpo, a member of the ensemble and the dance captain, truly left everything on the stage, dancing with a huge smile and high energy at every opportunity he was given.
One thing about Peter Allen was made crystal clear during the production: He wanted to be on stage, and he longed for an audience. Peter Allen was a performer and he loved to perform. In a play that was a celebration of performance, the Theatre Rhinoceros cast was filled with exactly the right type of people, and each brought a special kind of joy to the stage, just as Peter Allen once had.
“The Boy From Oz” is running at the Gateway Theatre until Nov. 17.