The first time many of us heard of Hugh Jackman, he was an Australian actor making a splash in London portraying what was said to be an especially dreamy and introverted Curly in "Oklahoma!"
That was 1998. By the time the revival came to Broadway in 2002, the phenomenon from Australia had been snapped up by Hollywood and he was flexing muscles and claws as Wolverine in his first of a seemingly endless cavalcade of "X-Men" movies.
But no one could know then that Jackman, now 46, would prove to be an ongoing phenomenon -- the rare actor with huge simultaneous careers both in Hollywood and on Broadway. More, he has done so with what virtually amounts to contrasting identities -- the action-movie hunk and the flamboyant Broadway showman.
We're exaggerating here, but not a lot. He did get to be both in the movie version of "Les Misérables."
When he opens next Sunday in "The River," however, the fellow onstage will be neither the pumped-up Hollywood superhero nor the Broadway song-and-dance superstar. He is starring in an 80-minute three-character drama by Jez Butterworth, the British playwright whose multilayered "Jerusalem" won Mark Rylance another Tony in 2011.
"River" is a dark, enigmatic mystery. Jackman portrays a man who, one moonless night, brings a woman to his faraway cabin to fish for trout. The production, again directed by Butterworth specialist Ian Rickson, promises an unusually intimate audience relationship to the action at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Something called "riverbank seating" is already sold out.
Clearly, we are a long way from the Jackman who made a breakout leading-man musical debut -- and won the 2004 Tony -- channeling the late gay Australian entertainer, Peter Allen, in the otherwise mediocre bio-musical, "The Boy from Oz."
We are even further from his most recent appearance here, "Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway," basically a song-and-dance Vegas act that set box-office and ticket-price records in 2011. On 10-week hiatus before bulking up for a return to Wolverine, he worked the room with easygoing charm, high-voltage charisma and, if he were not so likable, an embarrassing display of clips from his movies. He also changed into the gold lamé outfit he wore as the late Allen, wiggled his butt and sat on the lap of a woman in a box seat.
If you saw any of the four times he hosted the Tony Awards, you know that he seems to love performing -- I mean, really love it -- with a delight that dares theatergoers to notice that, just maybe, his pitch can wobble and his distinctively colored voice can get nasal and monotonous. He happens to enjoy a unique crossover appeal to middle-age women, gay men, action-flick fans and Australians. And enjoy it, he obviously does.
He also has an unlikely fan in no less than Barbara Cook, the legendary cabaret star who famously saw "Oz" 16 times on Broadway and another six times in four days when he did it in Sydney. "Seeing Hugh is like going to church," she told The Washington Post in 2011. "He has a perfectly fine voice, but it's about his willingness to show us who he is that is so moving. He allows himself to be so vulnerable."
But here he is in "The River," which had an acclaimed run at London's Royal Court two years ago featuring Dominic West (star of Showtime's new series "The Affair"). I asked Butterworth to comment on the disparities between Jackman's musical identity and the qualities called upon in his drama.
He denies disparities exist. "The personae are neither different nor contradictory," he argued with passion and authority.
"It's the limitations we wish to thrust upon artists which as often as not limit their options. Robert De Niro can play Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver' and Jack Byrnes in 'Meet The Parents.' Shakespeare could write 'The Comedy of Errors' and 'King Lear.' I envy the voice of Samuel Beckett and Mel Brooks. Hugh simply brings the same truth to each context. Perhaps what is remarkable is that he does it so extremely well."
In an interview with Broadway.com, director Rickson addressed the sexual dichotomy in Jackman's Hollywood/Broadway appeal -- without actually mentioning it. He said that he and the playwright asked themselves, "Who would be the kind of archetypal, primal man, yet someone who has a poetic sensibility, someone who has tenderness, someone who you care for ... Who is that? It is Hugh Jackman. That guy has a radiance, such a kind of soulful specialness, yet he is so ... masculine."
At a distance, at least, "The River" appears closer to the only other serious drama Jackman did on Broadway. In 2009, he and Daniel Craig played disappointed Chicago beat cops in Keith Huff's 90-minute drama, "A Steady Rain," which grossed a boggling $15.2 million in a 13-week run.
The two-character play, which I admired more than many of my colleagues, had both men tell their versions of a brutal event while mostly sitting in chairs under what appeared to be interrogation lamps. Jackman, playing the alpha-dog bully, was radically transformed from his song-and-dance image with black shiny hair and the insolent air of entitlement.
Despite Jackman's triple-threat talents as a singing, dancing actor, "Steady Rain" made me want to see him wrestle his way through another dramatic role. I felt relieved when Jackman announced that his next stage project would not be "Houdini," a new musical on the life of the escape artist.
Meanwhile, it seems right that he is working on "The Greatest Showman on Earth," a movie biography of P.T. Barnum. As Peter Allen used to sing, "a man just like any other man, unlike any other man." The Hollywood Jackman and the Broadway Jackman, perhaps, converge.