To all the bloggers who this year have been proclaiming Hugh Jackman a live entertainer in the league of Judy Garland: not yet. Based on the evidence of Jackman’s new high-energy Broadway production, which features the Aussie in song-and-dance mode and backed by six chorines and an 18-member orchestra, Jackman will have to dredge his own psyche a bit more before he gives us an evening for the ages.
Right now, what he offers is mostly surface emotion: whether singing a medley of numbers from iconic movie musicals (“Singing in the Rain”, “Guys and Dolls”), or more recent pop standards, Jackman rarely burrows under the surface of a lyric. He lacks the ability of the greatest entertainers to inhabit both the highest high and the lowest low.
To be fair, under the direction and choreographic assistance of Warren Carlyle (no writer is credited), Jackman is not aiming for the searing, soul-bearing Broadway ego trips of Elaine Stritch and Lena Horne. He wants to please an audience. In that sphere, he has no peer – at least among English-speaking movie stars. Handsome and long of limb, he is catnip to middle-aged women.
Wearing a sleek gold outfit during his Peter Allen numbers at the start of act two, Jackman confirms the truth of Noël Coward’s remark: “No one is more of a ponce than a heterosexual man in lamé.” But he is reassuring to the husbands that all those middle-aged women drag with them to this two-act, two-hour production. Jackman is the kind of audience indulger who, on a Sunday, will incorporate up-to-the-second football scores into his patter.
As a singer, Jackman purveys a smooth baritone, sounding a little reedy in the upper reaches. The voice doesn’t convey much warmth: “Soliloquy” from Carousel, which ends act one, is emotionally surefire, yet I didn’t find myself welling up.
I was more moved by a story Jackman told about his father just before the performer made his debut at Carnegie Hall. Dad had made the long trip from Down Under and was told the evening’s attire was “business casual” not “black-tie”. Yet he showed up attired formally to escort his son to the hall. When Jackman protested, the rugged old man said: “It’s not every day that a father sees his son make his debut at Carnegie Hall.”
In all the reminiscences here about growing up in Australia, his mother goes unremarked. His motherland, by contrast, is lavished with love: the show’s highlight is a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” replete with didgeridoos and wonderful aboriginal singers. It takes a Garland song to prove that Jackman has the makings of a Garland-level entertainer. Meanwhile, he’s the toast of the town.