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First Nighter: Hugh Jackman Takes Broadway by the Numbers

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HUGH JACKMAN
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Hugh Jackman, the well-known X-Man, brims with the X factor by movie definition. And now he's flaunting it to sell-out Broadway audiences as he already has in San Francisco and Toronto. And as he previously did in his 2004 Tony-winning Peter Allen bio-tuner, The Boy From Oz.

But don't assume that though in Back on Broadway he's working the Broadhurst Theatre for 10 weeks (and maybe extension, despite having his next X-Men commitment lurking) that he's doing a B'way act. He isn't. What he's smiling and soft-soaping and lubricating himself through for approximately two hours with intermission-cum-concessions is all but strictly Las Vegas.

Watching him do a Broadway medley and an "I Won't Dance" medley (he does dance) and a New York medley (to please the locals; he may not have included this one in Toronto) and the like -- often with varying combinations of scantily-clad showgirls alongside him -- a spectator can easily get the impression he and director-choreographer Warren Carlyle are carefully and calculatedly giving the audience what it wants.

On John Lee Beatty's TV-variety-hour set, the team has plotted the two-act program with such attention to Las Vegas formulas that there are practically no surprises. Yes, Hugh gets the audience to clap along and snap their fingers. Yes, Hugh cracks a few topical jokes -- one about Kim Kardashian, of course. Yes, Hugh doesn't fail to ask audience members, "How ya doin'?" Yes, Hugh finds an opportunity to reveal his chiseled pecs. Yes, Hugh pulls a front-row patron up on stage to work with him and the willowy William Ivey Long-dressed chorus assistants to whom the star refers more than once as 'My girls," which is hardly to say Jackman and Carlyle and energetic conductor Patrick Vaccariello aren't succeeding every glide and tap-step of the way. The crowd, obviously more familiar with Jackman from the films than the stage (or not exclusively from the stage), cheers every number. The rapt spectators do more than that. They cheer every hip swivel, every Saturday Night Fever pose. And such cheering! My ears are still ringing from the screams two young women directly behind me issued practically non-stop.

Jackman and Carlyle have plotted so well that it's a shame to report there are almost no surprises. Practically everything the lithe song-and-dance man does has been done before by someone cashing in on his or her celebrity, whether or not he or she has singing, dancing or acting skills. (Don't think the above-mentioned Kim Kardashian hasn't received offers she'll ponder after the failed-nuptials embarrassment blows over.)

It's as if this act exists in a generic form, with Jackman filling it in, adding allusions to his own career in the blanks provided for such custom-tailoring. It's an act engineered to satisfy the fans who've bought tickets for the equivalent of split-level-home down payments--and it does satisfy. It positively does.

Still, the happier news is that, although Back on Broadway has few unexpected creative moments, there are some. It's during those moments when the personable entertainer truly entertains. (Is he secretly bored behind that winning grin?) The first of these, which arrives late-ish in the first half is his rendition of "Soliloquy" from Carousel. This is the classic musical comedy aria in which Billy Bigelow speculates on his prospects as a father. Suddenly, Jackman -- on cruise-control for some time -- unleashes his more intense singing and extremely impressive acting impulses. As he makes the role of the braggart, conflicted, abusive carnival barker his. the depth of commitment is breath-taking.

The second sequence in which Jackman shines purely is a movie-musicals medley clearly based not on what he thinks the audience craves but on his own long-term passion. Intro-ing the segment, he recalls that when he was a kid, he'd come home from Saturday rugby practice in his native Australia and give himself over to screen tuners like Singin' in the Rain. Whereas the mash-ups prior to this one give send out the faint smell of virile-robot-in-gear, this one reveals where the real Jackman lives. And is he good at it! Just wait for him next year when he shows up in the long-awaited Les Miserables flick.

The last stretch that feels like the genuine article pays homage to where Jackman literally lives when his wife and he aren't bunking in Manhattan. It's constructed around his devotion to the Australian outback. For authenticity, he brings out fellow Aussies Olive Knight, Clifton Bieundurry, Paul Boon and Nathan Mundraby for a moving Aborigine-folksinging, didgeridoo-playing interlude.

Maybe the homage to the land is slotted next to closing because Jackman and Carlyle think that's when the audience is ready for it--and not before. To a large extent, however, the passage represents what Back on Broadway could have used plenty more of from a who-he-is-when-he's-at-home Jackman. It demonstrates what the show could have used more of along the lines of Jackman's earlier including Peter Allen's Tenterfield Saddler, the key autobiographical rumination that for mysterious and inexcusable reasons wasn't in the Great White Way's Boy From Oz score. That's the Wolverine who might have really shown his muscles.