Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 10, 2007
Xanadu Book by Douglas Carter Beane. Music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. Based on the Unviersal Pictures Film Screenplay by Richard Danus and Marc Rubel. Directed by Christopher Ashley. Choreographed by Dan Knechtges. Music Direction and Arrangements by Eric Stern. Scenic design by David Gallo. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Costume design bt David Zinn. Sound design by T. Richard Fitzgerald, Carl Casella. Projection design by Zachary Borovay. Wig and hair design by Charles G. Laponte. Cast: Kerry Butler, Cheyenne Jackson, and Tony Roberts. Also starring Jackie Hoffman, Mary Testa, with Curtis Holbrook, Anika Larsen, Kenita Miller, Marty Thomas, André Ward.
Yes, Xanadu is now on Broadway, at the Helen Hayes. Perhaps the least-expected and least-anticipated of all film-to-stage adaptations is delivering more good times (and lower risk of injury) than you could have found at a roller rink back in the day. Librettist Douglas Carter Beane, whose play The Little Dog Laughed was seen on Broadway last season, and director Christopher Ashley might have set out to make fun of the misbegotten 1980 Universal picture, but have instead succeeded in making 90 minutes worth of fun unequaled by most of New York's other recent musicals.
That's a minor miracle in itself, given the film's sordid life. A huge-budget flop that starred an unbelievably sexy Olivia Newton-John, fresh off her success in Grease, and dance legend Gene Kelly in his final screen role, Xanadu is not remembered fondly today because of its geek-meets-Greek tale of artistic inspiration, or even its helping sound roller disco's death knells. But its soundtrack, by John Farrar and Jeff Lynne of the 70s rock group Electric Light Orchestra, remains notable today for combining a dance club beat, honest romanticism, and a free-flowing lyrical cheesiness resembling a brick of microwaved Velveeta into a series of infectious, modern semi-standards.
Those songs, including the epic title number, the power ballad "Suspended in Time," and the coolly romantic "Don't Walk Away," are the most identifiable remnants of the original in Beane's stage script. He's also kept around muse Kira (Kerry Butler, in Newton-John's role), clueless California artist Sonny (Cheyenne Jackson), and real-estate magnate Danny Maguire (Tony Roberts, playing Kelly's character), and let them occupy the outlines of the film's story about the clash of destiny, fate, and commercialism during Sonny's attempts to build a concert hall for the well-wheeled non-elite.
Gone, though, are most hints of the pretentious historical allusions and grander cosmic significance that made the movie such an unintentional hoot. In their place are any number of jokes about the ridiculousness of the 1980s (leg warmers occupy a crucial plot point), the idiocy of the film, and the pointlessness of musical theatre. (Lord Lloyd-Webber, for example, receives a major name check.)
Luckily, the show compensates with considerably more talent than it needs, in every department. Dan Knechtges's choreography blends athleticism with camp to surprisingly potent results that capture all the rah-rah enthusiasm one might expect of gymnasts at Mt. Olympus High School. Designers David Gallo (sets), Howell Binkley (lights), and David Zinn (costumes) help carry out that aesthetic, helping the production find a keen balance between seriousness and parody that provide the look and feel it needs without going completely overboard. A gathering of Medusa, a centaur, and a cyclops singing "Have You Never Been Mellow?" in full Clash of the Titans garb is cutting it close, though.
The stage is populated with even crazier personages, especially in shameless scene-stealers Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa, who make a series of uproarious appearances as two ne'er-do-well muses who want only to thwart their sister Kira in her earthly pursuits. It's nice that their oversized comic faces, voices, and mannerisms for once fit into their surroundings instead of jutting away from them. Curtis Holbrook is an electric presence in the few featured dance spots he's been granted (including an especially charming turn as a young Danny, opposite both Roberts and Butler). The rest of the cast, which includes Anika Larsen, Kenita Miller, André Ward, and stunt skater Marty Thomas can't supply all of the spectacle the film's enormous dancing corps did, but is so full of spirit and personality you don't much mind.
Such feelings are easily understandable. It often seems as though the show will implode long before the integral paper streamers and cavalcades of mirrored balls have come and gone, but through sheer force of will the musical becomes what the movie couldn't: a delightful, smile-forcing summer night out. It's anyone's guess what will happen in August, when the Fringe Festival unleashes on New York its annual bevy of musicals just like this one. But for now, strap on your skates and get rolling - Xanadu has wild entertainment to spare for as long as it's here.