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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

Xanadu
Arizona Theatre Company


Dane Stokinger and Jessica Skerritt
Though musicals based on movies have been the trend on Broadway for years now, the idea of turning a huge flop movie into a musical must have been met with producers shaking their heads. I'm happy to report that the 1980 musical film flop Xanadu has been turned into a hilarious, campy and extremely charming stage production. The Broadway show ran for over 500 performances and the Arizona Theatre Company production that just opened in Phoenix is equally good, with a hilarious cast, sure-footed direction and excellent production elements.

While the film version of Xanadu was a flop, the soundtrack was very successful, with several top 20 songs that included hits like "Magic" and "Suddenly" from the film's star Olivia Newton-John, and others like "I'm Alive" from the Electric Light Orchestra. Using those songs as a starting point, with the addition of some other hit songs from Newton-John and ELO, Douglas Carter Beane has ingeniously adapted the screenplay into a comic spoof of the '80s.

Incorporating several elements of Greek mythology from another '80s campy film Clash of the Titans, and plenty of roller skates, Xanadu tells the story of muse Clio and her sisters who come to Earth from Mount Olympus to inspire down on his luck artist Sonny to create greatness. Urged on by Clio, who sports an Australian accent to disguise herself and is constantly on roller skates, Sonny has an idea to combine painting, dance, music and athletics into the ultimate symbol of '80s greatness—a roller disco. But the space he wants to turn into the roller disco is owned by Danny, an older businessman who also has a strange past connection to Clio. Clio's two jealous sisters throw a curse on her to fall in love with Sonny, something that their father Zeus forbids and that would result in Clio's banishment or, even worse, her death. Will Clio and Sonny fall in love? Will the curse force Clio to be put to death? Will the roller disco become a reality? Will Clio's leg warmers and roller skates start a fashion trend? Fortunately, this spoof of the movie that also starred Gene Kelly has its tongue firmly in cheek and the songs flow naturally out of Carter Beane's dialogue to form a comic musical gem of a show. And, since the '80s are often now looked upon as a decade with horrible fashions and trends, even the characters humorously lament what the '80s have done with an added wink and a nod to the film the show is based on. As Zeus states, "Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theater? They'll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter's catalog, throw it onstage and call it a show."

This is a co-production between the Arizona Theatre Company and the Village Theatre, which is located just outside of Seattle where the show ran last Fall. ATC Artistic Director David Ira Goldstein directs the production with a sure hand on the comedy and the addition of many inspired moments, including plenty of '80s references, from E.T. to an over the top use of the Nike "swoosh" symbol and having one character speak in "Valley girl" talk. He also gets plenty of comic mileage simply from the physical styles of the cast he's assembled, who are a well-oiled comic ensemble machine. And, while there are a few short moments where the musical drags, they are quickly followed by another musical number or humorous line of dialogue and are quickly forgotten.

Jessica Skerritt as Clio is lovely, with a clear and sweet singing voice. Her impersonation of Newton-John's speaking voice and song stylings are hilarious. Dane Stokinger (Skerritt's real life husband) is Sonny and he perfectly gets across the goofy, charming but ambitious artist. His vocals soar, especially during his "Don't Walk Away" solo. They both also have very good comic timing, which helps to bring out every laugh in Carter Beane's inspired script. Stokinger, unfortunately, was scheduled to leave the production shortly after opening night, after appearing in both the Village run of the show last fall and the ATC run in Tucson in December, heading back to Seattle to play Lancelot in the 5th Avenue Theatre's production of Spamalot. Kyle Sorrell will play Sonny for the remainder of the run.

Jeff Steitzer provides a huge amount of old time charm as Danny and Zeus, adding even more humor and touching moments to the entire production than Tony Roberts did in the original Broadway cast. He also has an extremely strong and clear singing voice which is put to good use several times throughout the show, and he also has some delightful dance moves.

Lisa Estridge and Christine Riippi are comic gold as Clio's scheming sisters Melpomene and Calliope. Riippi is almost a foot taller than Estridge and that difference is used to comic effect many times. They play perfectly off each other and their performances of "Evil Woman" and "Strange Magic," which includes some humorous moments of mimicry, are completely inspired. They don't just eat the scenery, they devour it. Also, Estridge's singing voice is superb.

The rest of the cast, Michael Feldman, Richard Peacock, Jessica Low and Taylor Niemeyer, all play numerous roles and they each get a moment or two to show off their comic, musical and dance skills. When they appear in the Mount Olympus scene in act two, all dressed up as various Greek mythical characters, it is comic bliss. The enjoyment the entire cast exhibits in performing the material easily infects the audience.

Choreographer Kathryn Van Meter provides an abundance of steps, both romantic and comic, and also seamlessly incorporates roller skating into the dancing—just about every member of the cast ends up on skates at one time or another. The original Broadway production was presented in one of the smallest Broadway theatres and had fairly minimal sets. The production elements at ATC are even better than the Broadway production, with a set design by Bill Forrester that combines neon light towers and a two-tier set with a passing resemblance to a Greek amphitheater. He also incorporates several drops, including a beautiful opening one that creates a sunny beach scene with a shimmering water effect, and large prop pieces including a lovely Pegasus and a vehicle for Zeus that still makes me laugh. Costumes by Karen Ledger are inspired, especially those Mount Olympus ones, but also blouses, skirts, skimpy shorts and plenty of leg warmers rooted in the hideous '80s fashions we all look back on with disbelief. Michael Gilliam's lighting design uses just about every color imaginable, painting the stage in beautiful hues.

The Broadway production ran without an intermission, and the addition of one here includes an added bonus. I won't ruin the surprise, but take your time getting out to the lobby at the end of the first act. There is also an extra bonus at the end of the show, after the bows.

Xanadu is a silly show with many show-stopping musical numbers of some of the biggest pop hits of the early '80s. The Arizona Theatre Company co-production with the Village Theatre has a superb cast, inspired direction and perfect design elements that combine into a truly humorous, infectious and magical evening that hardly anyone will be able to resist. So, pull out your leg warmers and roller skates from the closet and skate on down to the Herberger Theater before January 19th.

Xanadu runs through January 19th at Arizona Theatre Company at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org/ or by calling (602) 2566995.

Book: Douglas Carter Beane
Music & Lyrics: Jeff Lynne & John Farrar
Director: David Ira Goldstein
Choreographer: Kathryn Van Meter
Music Director: Tim Symons
Scenic Designer: Bill Forrester
Costume Designer: Karen Ann Ledger
Lighting Designer: Michael Gilliam
Sound Designer: Abe Jacob
Stage Manager: Brenda K. Walker
Assistant Stage Manager: Glenn Bruner
Assistant Stage Manager: Timothy Toothman
Assistant To The Stage Manager: Emma DeVore
Co-Producer: Village Theatre
Cast:
Melpomene: Lisa Estridge
Thalia / Young Danny: Michael Feldman
Erato / Eros: Jessica Low
Euterpe / Thetis: Taylor Niemeyer
Terpsicore / Hermes: Richard Peacock
Calliope: Christine Riippi
Kira / Clio: Jessica Skerritt
Danny Maguire / Zeus: Jeff Steitzer
Sonny Malone: Dane Stokinger


Photo: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin/Arizona Theatre Company

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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