When Steven Spielberg called Hugh Jackman to ask him to host the Oscars, the Australian song-and-dance man recounts in one of many breathless anecdotes in his new stage spectacular, he told the celebrated director “I’ll have a go”. He said the same thing when after nine months of auditions he was cast in the first X-Men film as the razor-clawed Wolverine, the role that would launch his Hollywood career and make him one of the most bankable movie stars on the planet.
“I’ll have a go” is Jackman’s mantra. It encapsulates a seemingly effortless career — and his seemingly effortless multi-threat talent — that is as impressive as it is unnerving. He can act, certainly, and sing, with the best of them, he can dance, tap and all. He can crack up 15,000 fans at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena — opening night in an apparently well-subscribed, five-city national tour — and charm one nanna on stage for some awkward pelvic thrusting in front of them all. His 25-strong, garishly costumed cast (including the fine voices of Gareth Keegan, Lara Seibert Young and Alinta Chidzey, among others) match his high kicking with Rockettes-like precision. His orchestra of 35 musicians (led by music supervisor Patrick Vaccariello) swells at every appropriate juncture.
And still something is missing. Under the lacquered hair, the stubbled, chiseled face, beyond the burnished brown eyes and cheeky grin of perfect choppers, you search for something just a little more mortal and come up empty. Beneath the muscle-hugging ruffled shirt, nary a sweat stain to be found, rhythmically beats the heart of a simple showman, blessed with talent and a starry international career, who loves to perform, who loves his family and loves his country. Anyone other than a Jackman super-fan may require a strong stomach for this.
Hugh Jackman: Broadway to Oz is part shimmering stadium spectacular, part kitschy RSL cabaret show, part family slide night, part patriotic Qantas commercial. You’ll hear movie medleys, music theatre memories and songbook standards. There’s plenty of Peter Allen, naturally, from the Broadway bio-show The Boy From Oz that won Jackman a Tony Award, and an arousing mega-mix from Les Misérables, the film version of which secured him an Academy Award nomination. Served with slices of Australiana sprinkled with enough red dirt to resemble Tourism Australia propaganda. (Allen — and Alan Joyce — would have to be pleased with Jackman’s rendition of I Still Call Australia Home, as the court-sized Aussie flag was draped across the hands of the audience.)
From the moment he’s literally catapulted on stage singing the opening number, Forever For You, the infectious energy doesn’t dissipate. Through I Won’t Dance, L-O-V-E (accompanied by clips from Jackman’s movie roles), Just The Way You Look Tonight (sung to doting wife Deborra-Lee Furness in the audience, the photo album flipping on the screen behind) and She Makes My Day, Jackman is the irrepressible crooner with restless legs and flawless delivery.
But not until Billy’s Soliloquy on impending fatherhood from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, preceded by a genuinely touching story from Jackman about the relationship with his dad, do we glimpse the storyteller, the performer who can really sell a song. He did it again in a piece from Les Mis, Jean Valjean’s life-turning Soliloquy. But those moments were few and far between.
Australia has been visited by the cream of Broadway in recent years, from Idina Menzel to Kristin Chenoweth, Bernadette Peters and, just this month, Audra McDonald. McDonald held audiences in the palm of her hand with more obscure material from the Broadway back-catalogue. Jackman has the ability to do the same — the Oscar recognition was no fluke — but he seems helplessly entranced by a style of bawdy pantomime from a bygone era.
Early in the show he asks if there are any Wolverine fans in the crowd. They erupt, of course, but looking around, the demographic looks decidedly older. “I hope you’re not only Wolverine fans because it’s going to be a long night,” Jackman gags, part of an avuncular schtick peppered with dad jokes. He needn’t worry. This show means a lot to Jackman, clearly, and nobody was going to tell a multimillion-dollar movie star he should do it any differently. The crowd, by and large, wouldn’t want him to.
A highlight of the second act is a number from the indigenous collective Nomad Two Worlds, an art project designed to forge reconciliation through culture — something Jackman has been personally involved in. The didjeridoo backing and spine-tingling vocals threaten to steal the spotlight entirely, before Our Hugh gracefully slips into a bewitching version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. It’s all handled beautifully.
Otherwise, there’s little in Vaccariello’s musical interpretations that really excite. Or, for that matter, in the choreography by director Warren Carlye (a Tony winner and frequent Jackman collaborator), despite the talented cast at his disposal. Like Roger Kirk’s glittering costumes and Brian Thomson’s neon-framed set design — two giants of Australian stage craft — Jackman still shines. Iridescently.
If only there was a little less of the wise-cracking lounge singer and a little more of the movie star with emotional heft. Then you’d really have a show. Somewhere beneath all the razzle dazzle is a real artist.
Forever For You
I Won’t Dance
Just The Way You Look Tonight
She Makes My Day
Movie medley (Luck Be A Lady, Singin’ In The Rain, I Got Rhythm, Steppin’ Out With My Baby, Sing Sing Sing)
This Is Me
Les Miserables medley (Soliloquy, I Dreamed A Dream, One Day More)
Not The Boy Next Door
Peter Allen medley (Best That You Can Do, Don’t Cry Out Loud, I Honestly Love You, Quiet Please, There’s A Lady On Stage, Rio)
I Happen To Like New York
I’ve Been Everywhere
Nomad Two Worlds – Inhibition
Nomad Two Worlds – Art Song
Somewhere Over The Rainbow
I Still Call Australia Home
Mack The Knife