Dressed in black, and armed with two maracas a person, Jackman and company pivoted and circled around the stage, evoking the boundless energy and joie de vivre that were always the hallmarks of Allen's famous concert appearances. The number ended with Jackman lounging atop a piano—a familiar Allen pose.
The performance was part of a press preview put together by the creative team of The Boy from Oz, due to open at the Imperial Theatre on Oct. 16 after a month of previews. "I Go to Rio" was one of two songs offered. The other was the show's other "bookend," "When I Get My Name in Lights," a number which comes at the start of the musical. For that selection, Jackman was paired with Mitchell Federan, a hyper-talented 11-year-old who plays Allen as a young boy growing up in small town Australia.
Mitchell spent the number—which was lifted from Allen's score for Legs Diamond—dancing on the floor, the piano and whatever other surfaces were handy. Mitchell grew up in Cleveland, where his mother owns a dancing studio. He has been hoofing since the age of two, and performed in the Broadway revival of The Music Man and the U.S. touring show of Annie Get Your Gun.
The score of The Boy from Oz is culled from Allen's songbook. Throughout his career, Allen collaborating with many songwriters, including Adrienne Anderson, Burt Bacharach, Jeff Barry, Michael Callen, Christopher Cross, Tom Keane, Marsha Malamet, Dean Pitchford and Carol Bayer Sager—all of whom are represented in the score.
Michael Mulheren, who plays Allen's abusive father in the musical, commented that many people don't seem to know that Allen wrote the songs he made famous in concert. "People sit there and go, `Who wrote the songs?'" said the amused Mulheren. "Peter Allen. There are a long list of other songwriters involved, of course—a lot of them are coming to the opening. But every song is Peter Allen." The book to the show was penned by Martin Sherman, the London-based playwright who is best known for the serious-mind drama Bent. This is his first libretto. He was offered the job by London producer Robert Fox. "Robert phoned me," told Sherman. "We've worked together a number of times. He's produced two plays of mine in the West End. He said, `Would you be interested in writing The Boy from Oz? There was a long silence and I said `What took you so long?' The moment I saw something in print about the show, I had a little instinct it would be good for me."
Sherman said the show has been a positive experience so far. "We're having the time of our lives. And the difference from a play is that every so often someone gets up and sings."
Singing most often is star Jackman, who has temporarily put on hold a thriving film career to play the Aussie entertainer, who was discovered by Judy Garland and was briefly married to her daughter, Liza Minnelli. Addressing the crowd during the presentation, Jackman exhibited the breezy charm and gregariousness that he showed as the host of the 2003 Tony Awards.
Sherman has experienced Jackman's public appeal first hand. "I saw the opening night of Oklahoma! in London," said the playwright, speaking of Jackman's star-making turn as Curly. "When he walked on stage singing `O, What a Beautiful Morning,' I heard something I've never heard in the theatre in my life. All across the theatre, you heard all these women sigh.
"He's got incredible energy," Sherman continued. "And he's fearless. He has total generosity. He's incapable of doing anything dishonest. He just can't. He completely open."
Beth Fowler, who plays Allen's devoted mother, was likewise admiring of Jackman's magnetism. "There's going to be a certain amount of improvisation in the show," she observed. "Hugh will be using the house, which he can do, because he's so bright and quick and charming."
Fowler won her part in spite of herself. Telling the story, she said, "They called my agent and they asked me to learn `Don't Cry Out Loud.' I bought the music and got the Melissa Manchester tape, and I called my agent and said, `I don't think I should audition for this. I don't think it's a song for me. I'm not a pop singer. I don't think I'd do the song a service.' They came back the next day. The casting director had told the director, and he said, `Tell her to come in and sing like Beth Fowler. I don't want a pop singer.'"
The preview served as a reminder that Allen (at least as played by Jackman) could, indeed, be an almost ridiculously entertaining man. But will contemporary audiences remember the singer-dancer-songwriter who wrote "Everything Old Is New Again" and "I Honestly Love You"; who once rode onto the Radio City Music Hall stage on a camel; whose image was one of the first to be plastered on the sides of New York City buses?
"Right at the beginning we address that," said Sherman. "Allen says, `I bet most of you don't know who I am.' Because it's true. You can't run from it. At one point he calls himself a footnote. But he also says that footnotes help explain the text. For most people, you can't say, `Oh, it's a musical about Peter Allen.' But it's a musical about a man who was very much a part of his time and his time, the '50s through the '90s, was very interesting; and his life illuminates that time."