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  • Writer's pictureAlex First

The Boy from Oz (theatrical), at The National Theatre - 2 hours 10 minutes, plus a 20-minute interval

Born Peter Richard Woolnough, but performing as Peter Allen (10th February 1944 – 18th June 1992, his colourful life makes for an engaging musical.

 

With music and lyrics by Allen and book by Nick Enright, The Boy from Oz is based on Stephen MacLean’s 1996 biography of Allen.

 

It covers how he came to succeed in the dog-eat-dog world of show business, as well as his personal relationships.

 

A born showman, as a child he preferred musicals and cinema to sport. He loved going to the movies with his mum.

Photos by Nicole Cleary


His dad was a belligerent alcoholic, his grandfather a saddler who worked in the regional NSW town of Tenterfield, where Peter was born.

 

The hit, Tenterfield Saddler, is performed late in the piece.

 

From a young age, Woolnough, as he was then known, began performing at the New England Hotel in the Northern Tablelands city of Armidale, where he lived.

 

By 16, he had packed his bags and headed to the Gold Coast, where he found work in a show inspired by The Everly Brothers, alongside Chris Bell.


Overseen by Chris’ father, they were known as The Allen Brothers, Chris and Peter.

 

A Southeast Asian tour followed, which is where Peter met the legendary Judy Garland.

She began to guide his career, encouraging him to be authentic … to give all of himself, from his heart.

 

Garland also introduced Peter to her daughter, Liza Minnelli, whom he went on to marry.

 

After they split, he went through some tough times professionally and financially, but he developed into a sought-after songwriter.

 

His biggest hit was Olivia Newton-John’s I Honestly Love You (written with Jeff Barry).

 

He also crafted Don’t Cry Out Loud (written with Carole Bayer Sager) and one of his signature songs, I Go to Rio (written with Adrienne Anderson).

Peter Allen’s most popular album was Bi-Coastal (1980).

 

The love of Allen’s life was Greg Connell (who later died of an AIDS-related illness).

 

It was Greg who encouraged Peter to approach an agent who had attended one of his shows.

 

The latter snared Peter a gig at New York City’s prestigious Radio City Music Hall, where he performed a series of sell out concerts.

 

Hardly a fan of Australia’s national anthem, Allen penned his own, the iconic I Still Call Australia Home, which Qantas helped propel.

 

Like his lover, who passed away eight years before him, Allen died of an AIDS-related illness, at the age of 48.

theatrical’s The Boy From Oz is a joyful night of musical entertainment and storytelling.

 

As Peter Allen, Matthew Hadgraft has a strong and enduring stage presence and a good rapport with the audience. His ad-libbing comes across as natural and infectious.

 

Saskia Penn is a revelation as Judy Garland. With depth and tone, her output is outstanding.

 

Sarah Monteaux, too, is a knockout, transitioning a timid Minnelli to a bona fide star in her stride, with vocal dexterity and strength.

 

Leighton Garwin impresses in a sensitive portrayal of Greg Connell, his delivery of I Honestly Love You being one of the musical’s highlights.

Maureen Andrew comes across well as Peter’s caring, no-nonsense mother.

 

Reuben Koronczky alternates the young Peter with Ethan Lockhart, approaching the role with confidence and dynamism.

 

Staggering onto stage, in a deliberately dark counterpoint, is Mark Eather as Woolnough’s good for nothing father, Dick.

 

Allen’s three back-up singers – Sylvia Kokkinos, Tara Lichtenstein and Angelica Sevastopoulos – shine when taking to the stage in a series of numbers.

 

I was particularly engaged by the harmonising of the ensemble. In fact, it is large cast that numbers 35.

Positioned at the back of the stage, the orchestra, led by musical director Alexandra Byrne, excels.

 

Directed and choreographed by Rhylee Nowell, The Boy from Oz features some bold costuming by designer Karen Spencer.

 

A straightforward but effective set design by Abbey Stanway ensures the main focus is on the performers.

 

The production is a lively and energetic celebration of a life well lived – bumpy, bruising and boisterous.

 

It is playing at The National Theatre until 21st July, 2024.

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