Review: The Boy from Oz

PLOS Musical Productions
Frankston Arts Centre
31 December to 8 January

A new year, a new theatre season and to kick off 2023, I found myself in Frankston for PLOS Musical Productions’ revival of The Boy From Oz. It’s no secret nowadays that PLOS is most likely the only community theatre company in Melbourne that has the privilege of being both the first and last show of each year due to their new year’s season and they usually choose a show that allows the theatrical season to go out with a bang and start it with all guns blazing, giving the community a glimpse of what’s to come for the theatre world when the new year begins. For their first new year’s production in three years, PLOS undoubtedly made the right choice with reviving The Boy From Oz, which they first performed thirteen years ago, as it’s a highly energetic show that showcases all the glitz and glamour that inhabited the life of Australia’s greatest showman Peter Allen and with expectations so high to close and open the theatre season of each year, PLOS absolutely delivered on their promise of giving us the ultimate theatrical experience. 

Photo credit – James Oorloff

At the helm of the entire production was Paul Watson in the director’s chair, who arguably had one of the most fantastic creative visions the Melbourne amateur circuit has seen since its big return from the covid pandemic. Taking a highly cinematic approach to the setting that was Peter Allen’s life, Watson pulled out all the stops to make his masterpiece look as professional as possible with archival footage projections, broadway worthy lighting and sound design from Brad Alcock and Marcello Lo Ricco respectively, visual storytelling that could touch your soul, messages of equality and a tribute to Olivia Newton-John as well as Allen himself, resulting in a visual spectacle that could light up the night sky and could even garner Watson with an award nomination when the 2023 season is over. Meanwhile, musical director Nathan Firmin and his band added their own sense of glamour and grandeur to the score, finding a beautiful balance between the showtunes of Broadway and the pub music atmosphere of Armidale, New South Wales all the while pushing the cast to showcase the greatest of their vocal abilities. As for the choreography, Venessa Paech also found a beautiful balance between both music scenes with her dance routines, blowing us away with routines that could give the Radio City Rockettes a run for their money in the Broadway numbers and in the more solemn numbers, managed to bring out all the emotion in not only the cast but in the audience as well, resulting in a choreographic presentation that sparkled and shined. 

In the cast of any production of The Boy From Oz, you need to have an array of talents that are not only capable of giving a good performance but putting on a show and you need to have a strong Peter Allen to be the evening’s host and leader. PLOS found that in their leading man Drew Downing, who turned the late great showman’s flamboyance up to an eleven as he took us on a convincing journey through Allen’s life from his onstage triumphs to his darkest hour of tragedies that saw him losing his father, mentor and life partner all throughout the production. Downing channelled his inner star to give us a performance that was camp in all the best ways possible, crisp and charismatic and this was all complimented by the performance given by young Isaac Russo, who portrayed Allen’s younger self. At twelve years old, Russo had a rightful place at the right hand of his adult performer as he too rocked the mic and piano like only his real life counterpart could and demonstrate what he has to offer our community, especially with a rising and royal portrayal like this. In their portrayals of Peter Allen’s two great loves, George Walker and Shane Pritchard both presented standout elements in their performances of Liza Minnelli and Greg Connell respectively. Walker’s vocal technique was one that could not be flawed as she took on the legendary Liza With A Z with all the pizazz needed to make her showmanship all the more convincing, while Pritchard’s acting chops were undeniably unparalleled despite a few accent slips from his introduction as the barman who stole the Boy From Oz’s heart to his heartbreaking departure from the stage and the world through his rendition of the Grammy award winning tune I Honestly Love You. Both Walker and Pritchard rose to the occasion to give portrayals that were sweet and seductive. 

Other standouts in the show took the form of Katelyn Anitema, Gemma Purdy and Courtney Smith and their portrayals of the vocal trio of Allen’s backup singers, who together, provided harmonies reminiscent of some of the greatest three part harmony girl groups of the 1960s from The Supremes to The Ronettes as they achieved more as backup singers than certain leads over the years, giving us the whole story with their powerful and purposeful vocals. Peter Noble may only have been present in two scenes as Peter’s father Dick Woolnough but he sure enough made quite the impression with his acting performance that not only haunted young Peter but the audience too as he descended into the depths of despair through the hole in the bottle his character drank from to make his departure the more devastating and dramatic. One of my favourite performances in the show was given by the divine, daring and darling Melinda Gregory in the role of Peter’s mother Marion Woolnough. This role was a full 180 to Gregory’s previous role, her guild nominated turn as Mrs. Lovett in Fab Nobs’ Sweeney Todd, but it didn’t phase her whatsoever and she pulled off this drastic character change with ease, proving her versatility as an actress with her portrayal of a loving, supporting mother who was every bit as flamboyant as her superstar son. By the end of her stage time, the audience wanted Gregory to be their mother too and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house with her rendition of Don’t Cry Out Loud. The biggest standout of The Boy From Oz, however, was the Queen of the overall production, miss Adrienne George and her portrayal of the icon that is Judy Garland, who happened to be Peter’s mentor. Judy’s character in the production is killed off quite early, only halfway through the first act to be exact, but nevertheless, the character makes a true statement in the musical’s run time and leaves a big impression. Many productions at times discredit her as just another supporting role but George, proved to everyone once and for all that she truly is the leading lady of the story, as we got to see the raw emotion pour out of her due to the damage that Hollywood had done to the psychie of her real life counterpart. George truly delivered every line and every lyric with all the meaning and magic imaginable as if she had been possessed by the spirit of the showbiz legend herself, embodying Garland’s mannerisms, one of a kind vocals and all too real tragic life story in just a few scenes. Not many performers in our circuit can achieve this feat when portraying a real life individual and if George isn’t nominated for an award at the end of the theatre season for her legendary efforts, then a real injustice will have been done to a performer who made her limited stage time one of the most memorable in recent years. 

In conclusion, reviving The Boy From Oz at PLOS for their first new year’s production since their adaptation of Mamma Mia in 2019-2020 was a worthy follow up that deserves just as much recognition as the original PLOS production. Everyone in the audience was left wanting to go to Rio, Broadway and even Armidale, New South Wales from when the curtain rose to the curtain’s close, as they went on this magnificent journey through the life of Peter Allen and even though its been over thirty years since the great showman’s death, this production continues to keep his contributions to the music and theatre world as relevant as ever, immortalising his legacy in the process. With performances that define the word showbiz, an innovative prod team that took many modern cinematic approaches to the stage, costumes and set designs that glistened like a diamond and a loving community at every turn, you’ll be in for a real fun ride from the minute you enter the theatre. Special shoutout to Robyn Parker for her performance as Bonnie in the production, you were absolutely fabulous and I could see how much fun you were having in each respective role you played. Make sure you get your tickets to this production while you still can, support this company and local theatre, they are mainstay in our beloved community. Congratulations to all involved in The Boy From Oz, I can’t wait to see what musical marvels you adapt throughout the rest of 2023 and happy new year to all.

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Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo

Lucas Ioppolo is a community theatre performer with a passion to bring a positive energy and encouragement to those in theatre who have gone unnoticed or underrepresented. They hope their reviews can help bring the spotlight back to a community that has helped them throughout the years.
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