SEXY PEOPLE ON STAGE AT CELEBRATION THEATRE
Interview with director MICHAEL SHEPPERD
About Celebration Theatre’s Production of The Boy from Oz
BY RYAN M. LUÉVANO
This April (2016) Los Angeles’ very own Celebration Theatre at the Lex in association with Nicholas Caprio, Michael C. Kricfalusi, Todd Milliner and Jack Morrissey will present, under the artistic direction of Michael Matthews and Michael Shepperd, the West Coast premiere of The Boy from Oz. This 5 Tony Award nominated Broadway extravaganza will take stage at the 54-seat Celebration Theatre with choreography by Janet Roston; musical direction by Bryan Blaskie; and direction by co-artistic director Michael A. Shepperd.
This musical focuses on the extraordinary life of legendary singer/songwriter Peter Allen, from his birth in 1944 and humble beginnings to his meteoric rise to fame as an international star. The story covers Peter’s life and career in Australia and the United States, as well as his relationships with the legendary singing stars Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. Here’s my interview with director Michael Shepperd who discusses the excitement, challenges and privilege of bringing this show to the L.A. theater community.
Whose idea was it to bring The Boy from Oz to Celebration Theatre in LA?
Our first show of the season was Booty Candy; the second was Dreamboy, both of which were critical successes. But we needed a musical, and we applied for a couple other shows and we didn’t get them. We, Michael Matthews and I, disappointed by that (and as is always the case) go to our office: which is a bar, and we drink up an idea. And one of the ideas was The Boy from Oz. Once the idea came up (and two highballs in) we began joking around: ‘Hugh Jackman will come in and do it for us in our 54-seat theatre.’ Of course, I’m then asked to go apply for the rights. So I apply for the rights, and two days later I get a phone call from David Spicer who holds the rights and he says, “I’m giving you the rights for the musical.” And we were all shocked because this is a huge show and we just assumed one of the large theatres would do it—and that’s when panic set in.
Were you a fan of Peter Allen before The Boy From Oz?
Up until eleven years ago when I saw the show on Broadway, I did not know who Peter Allen was, and then I saw the show and I said, ‘What? He wrote songs for Olivia Newton John,’ (who twelve years ago was still living in my fan boy head). So I started checking him out to see what his story was about. I found out who he was and his story and with all of that thinking, ‘That’s interesting and cool.’ Never thinking that flash forward twelve years I would then be directing a musical based on his life. Which then involves lots of hours of research, watching videos of him, and videos of Liza and Judy.
Why do you think Peter Allen is befitting having a musical about his life? Why do you think his story is important?
The Boy from Oz is a jukebox musical, and although I haven’t found evidence of this: it feels as if it was created for Hugh Jackman. Twelve years ago I saw Hugh Jackman do it on Broadway and it was amazing, his performance was great. He deservedly won the Tony for it. But I don’t know if I came away knowing any more about Peter Allen as I got to watch Hugh Jackman sing and dance for two hours.
So when I got the script I was like, ‘Oh I remember that. Wait, where did this scene come from?’ I was so taken by the talent that is Hugh Jackman, that I missed some of the story. But then again, I’m old; I miss a lot of things. After reading the script and doing the research I said, ‘This is a very brave man who sort of lived most of this truth . . . leaving home at sixteen, bumping into Judy Garland who then brings him to New York, he marries her daughter Liza Minnelli, they get divorced, he then comes out of the closet, partners with Greg Connell, Greg dies and then he contracts the virus and then he dies . . . that’s quite a life. And in the middle of this he wrote some of the most beautiful music around.
What made Andrew Bongiorno standout as the lead for this production?
Andrew wasn’t able to originally come to the auditions, he sent in a taped audition. We saw maybe fifteen people for the role of Peter Allen. But there was a charm and vulnerability in Andrew that was attractive, and like Peter Allen he’s so completely charismatic. When you watch interviews with him or see him perform there’s a charisma, a spirited energy about him, and I felt that Andrew had that. When he got back in town, the producer and I met with him, we sang him and read a scene, then we said, ‘We’ll be back in touch with you, just kidding we’ll offer you the role.’ I’m glad he showed up, there’s a real loving beauty about Andrew Bongiorno . . . and he’s Australian.
What is your overall plan for this show?
To make the story make sense in a 54-seat theatre. We’ve gone back to telling the story, his story about love, and trying to find love and acceptance. I don’t have the budget to bring a camel on stage or have forty rockettes, we have spit, eyelashes and ingenuity—that’s all we’ve got.
I am encouraging my actors not to imitate or duplicate these characters; they have to live in their own truth of who they are as actors and approaching these characters. A couple of the characters of course are iconic and you want to give an essence of them, but it’s more important that we tell the truth in the story, people need to hear the story. Now luckily I’ve cast a Liza and Judy who look very similar to Liza and Judy, which helps with the story.
Overall, it’s a memory play. I don’t want to use the term ‘history lesson’ because that’s a turn off; rather it’s a play that I think will enlighten people as to what it was like at that time. But ultimately it’s a love story, it’s Peter’s love story, it’s about finding love and acceptance.
What challenges did you face bringing this Broadway size show that ran at the 1417-seat Imperial Theatre to significantly smaller Celebration Theatre? And what was your remedy?
We have a 54-seat theatre and a forty-person cast. So immediately we said, ‘How do we make this fit in our space?’ One of the brilliant things that Michael and I work together so well on is being able to look at a script and being able to pair it down. When we did The Color Purple, which had thirty-seven members we ended up doing it with sixteen. So I asked myself, ‘What are the essential elements of the play? Who do I need? Who can I get rid of? Who can I consolidate?’ That was one of the hard things, pairing it down to twelve, especially when five of the twelve can’t change—I can’t double Peter Allen, but I’m cautiously optimistic that it works!
Even with twelve actors in the space, I’m definitely trying not to make it look like we crammed twelve actors in the space. One of the biggest assets I have is our resident choreographer Janet Roston. She’s just brilliant at making choreography become alive and electric in small spaces. She’s able to create imagery that is stunning to look at and is also totally entertaining. And it doesn’t feel like ‘Oh my God, they’re right on top of me, why do I feel so uncomfortable?’ She’s able to create things that just feel right in the space.
What can audiences expect to see from this production by Celebration Theatre?
A journey about love, that’s filled with great music and really sexy people on stage. My cast is really hot, they just are.
How do you hope L.A. audiences will respond to this West Coast Premiere?
I hope they will enjoy it, I hope they will tell their friends and that this becomes a sold-out show. I also hope folks will come out and support live theater and live queer theater in Los Angeles. Celebration Theatre is the oldest continuously producing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer questioning, intersex, two-spirited and allied theater of the century, and I’m hoping they will come out to support that too.
The Boy from Oz will begin previews on Friday, April 22 at 8pm; will open on Friday, April 29 at 8pm and perform through Sunday, June 19 at the Celebration Theatre’s new home, Celebration at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave. in Los Angeles. For more information and tickets visit: www.celebrationtheatre.com.