By Regan Baker
The Boy from Oz is the most successful Australian musical ever written and the first to make it onto the stages of Broadway. With Todd McKenny taking on the reigns as Peter Allen during the original Australian Tour, and Hugh Jackman at the helm for the 365 show Broadway tour and the Australian Arena Tour, Townsville-born Shannon Foley had some big shoes to fill in this Savoyards production. Thankfully for Foley though, I was too young to attend any of those tours and therefore had nothing to compare his performance against in last night’s preview showing. To that point, Foley and the performance as a whole, were brilliant – save for a few minor hiccups.
Having spent the vast majority of his career as an opera singer, Foley stands out in his role as Peter Allen and truly shows his depth and versatility as a performer. His voice was consistently superb and his renditions of some of Allen’s most memorable works were performed beautifully, most notably, Tenterfield Saddler, a song which I only heard for the first time a few weeks ago when Hugh Jackman performed at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre. Allen’s take was on par with Jackman’s. And of course one cannot forget the two most iconic songs of Allen’s career – I go to Rio and I Still Call Australia Home, which were both performed with absolute brilliance and resounding applause from the audience. While I am a huge fan of Foley’s vocal talent, I was a little off-put by his stage presence in the first act. His spoken voice was not as commanding as what it needed to be during the narration of scenes, and he struggled to be as flamboyant and high-energy as what the audience may have expected.
Vanessa Wainwright as Judy Garland was a beautiful fit and her acting and vocal performances were flawless. Wainwright is a staple in the Savoyards community, having performed with the company since 2000 and it is easy to see why. I was also delighted to see Jacqui Cuny back on the stage after seeing her take on the role of Aunt Eller in Savoyards last musical production, Oklahoma. Cuny has become a Savoyards favourite of mine and tackled the role of Marion Woolnough (Allen’s mother) with grace and ease. While his role was only small, Aiden Huntly deserves big credit for taking on the role of Young Peter Allen as he showed off his ability to sing and tap dance at only a young age. In contrast to these fabulous performances I’m left a little unsure of the casting of Natalie Lennox as Liza Minnelli, who is well-known for being a powerhouse of energy with a strong mezzo-soprano voice. Lennox, unfortunately, just didn’t quite hit the marks in this regard. Lennox is clearly a very talented performer and has a strong background in dance and music, but she had a very tough match-up in her casting and fell just a bit short.
Kim Heslewood and her team of costume designers did a marvellous job on the showy garments worn by Allen and the ensemble for the finale, I go to Rio. The majority of Allen’s flamboyant costumes were also very well designed and suited the theme of the production and were true to character. The ensemble were also very well costumed and the colour and style suited the era of production nicely.
While being a fantastic performance as a whole, the show was not, sadly, without its hiccups. The sound mix had a few kinks that need to be worked through as there were several occasions where the speaking actors’ microphones were not turned on. There were also multiple occasions of audio reverberation and inconsistencies in the volumes of the lead characters microphones and those of the supporting singers. While these hiccups were plentiful, it is important to remember that this was a preview performance that is designed to work through these kinds of problems and think it important to commend the sound design team, headed by David Sowdon and David Longton, for controlling a large number of microphones in a community theatre production.
The other two minor letdowns for me were as a result of the lighting and set design. Looking firstly at the lighting design by Allan Nutley, for the most part I was impressed by the level of coloured lights that lit the stage and complimented the performance. The setback, however, was in terms of the spotlighting. There were multiple instances where The Trio (comprised of Katyia Wills, Carly Wilson and Bronte Devine) moved on stage to perform alongside Foley, however they sang in darkness. While I understand why the lighting focus was on Foley as the lead performer, it seemed jarring to have The Trio intentionally walk on stage to then not highlight their performance also. While I enjoyed the construction of the set and the differing elements were all designed nicely, the layout of the stage created huge gaps in the wings that allowed the audience to see backstage. It was often distracting during the performance to see actors, technicians and stagehands moving around in the wings or getting ready for the next scene.
Keeping in mind that these hiccups were only minor, the overall performance was highly enjoyable. It was a high energy performance of a story mixed with emotion, laughter and bittersweet memories. Whether you are a new or returning patron to the story of Peter Allen, Savoyards production of The Boy from Oz is highly recommended and a great night out.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.