NEW YORK – Unless someone is sitting on lost footage of Bruce Willis in a kickline, it’s hard to think of an actor in the last 50 years with the combined skills of a bona fide action-movie star and a dedicated song-and-dance man. That puts Hugh Jackman in a class of his own, where he seems tickled to be in his solo showcase, Back on Broadway. Jackman stops (just) short of giving lap dances, but in every other way, he’s a full-service entertainer.
Rat Pack comparisons will no doubt be made, and it’s true that Jackman summons shades of Frank, Dean and Sammy in his effortless blend of suave self-assurance and disarming self-deprecation. The guy is charm personified. And he most definitely embraces the old-school Vegas rule of never doing a number when you can do a medley. But there’s also something of the Judy/Liza tradition in his ability to get on cozy terms with a crowd, and not only while singing “Over the Rainbow.”
At the first press performance for the limited New York engagement, Jackman held the audience in the palm of his hand — flirting, teasing, sharing personal memories and forging a connection that extended to the ushers and security staff. He jokingly acknowledges the chasm separating the steel claws of Wolverine from the steel-heeled tap shoes of a 21st-century Gene Kelly. It’s the ease and enthusiasm with which he straddles that divide that make him such a winning personality.
While Jackman reportedly has been keeping an eye out for a musical stage vehicle since his 2004 Tony-winning turn in The Boy From Oz, this act came together quickly when Fox’s production schedule on The Wolverine was pushed back. Refined during tryouts earlier this year in San Francisco and Toronto, it boasts polished direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle and dynamic music direction by Patrick Vaccariello.
It’s a solo show with major bells and whistles, given that Jackman shares the stage with six female backup dancer/singers, an 18-piece orchestra, and at one point, a quartet of Indigenous Australian vocalists and didgeridoo players. If all that sounds slick and calculated, it is and it isn’t. What makes Jackman such a throwback to another age in entertainment is his knack for injecting even the glitziest package with spontaneity and heart.
There’s a loose thread running through the show pegged to important calls Jackman has received over the years, and his typically Australian response to every challenge: “Yeah, I’ll have a go.” That applies to playing a brooding mutant with manicure issues, hosting the Oscars, or fronting this cabaret-act-on-steroids.
He points out the dilemma of being under contract to Fox and required to bulk up for his next Wolverine stint while inevitably shedding pounds onstage eight performances a week. That yields a medley built around the song, “I Won’t Dance.” But of course he does, in a workout that incorporates fragments lifted from Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim and… K.C. & the Sunshine Band.
That kind of musical eclecticism is a constant in the show, though it’s refreshing how few concessions Jackman makes to more contemporary tastes. When he does a hip-hop riff on an a cappella number from The Music Man, it’s a throwaway gag, not an apology for his unabashed love of musicals. That passion is explored in a full-throttle tribute to the movie musical – most of them MGM, but for transparent reasons, conspicuously led by the Fox logo and fanfare.
While Jackman doesn’t preview his role as Jean Valjean in Tom Hooper’s upcoming screen version of Les Miserables, he dips into past career highlights, among them Oklahoma! (which he performed in London with an unfortunate perm), Carousel (from a Carnegie Hall concert that occasions a lovely anecdote about his father) and The Boy From Oz.
That extended set allows Jackman to camp it up wildly as he slips into flamboyant Peter Allen mode and body-hugging gold leather and lamé. He playfully blurs the line between character and performer – notably in a saucy bit of coquetry in which he challenges the drummer to keep track of every butt-popping gyration with suitable accompaniment. Jackman appears to be winking at the audience, as if to say, “I know what you’re thinking and I don’t care.”
He makes no claims to being the world’s greatest singer or dancer. Jackman’s voice leans toward the nasal side at times, but he compensates with tremendous power. And while his dance moves stick within a limited range, his energy and limberness go far beyond. Basically, he sells it, which in the age of the techno-spectacle, is something rare and magnetic. It’s obvious that he’s having a blast up there, and his enjoyment is contagious.
Venue: Broadhurst Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 1)
Cast: Hugh Jackman
Director-choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Music director: Patrick Vaccariello
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: William Ivey Long
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: John Shivers
Video director: Alexander V. Nichols
Presented by Robert Fox, The Shubert Organization