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4 ½ Stars: Xanadu

Xanadu is blissfully nutty. It might enrich your experience if you saw the outrageously awful movie with Olivia Newton-John, but let's face it: the film was a major flop. It's not like turning Casablanca into a musical and having to live up to the comparison. The point is, even on its own terms, without any comparison to the film, Xanadu is a delightful, audience-friendly (and dare we say it, critic-friendly) musical comedy that should run and run and run. Or should we say skate?

Let others compare the show to the movie, what's in, what's out, what's changed and why. Really, does it matter? The story, after all, is just a delicious excuse for some high camp comedy. It's this simple: a demigod, Clio (Kerry Butler) comes down to earth from Mount Olympus to help a struggling young artist, Sonny (Cheyenne Jackson). Her jealous sisters (Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman) plot against her and eventually Clio breaks a big-time rule: she falls in love with Sonny. When she finally tells him the truth about herself, he (at first) refuses to believe her, thinking she's looney tunes. When he realizes his mistake, he follows her to Mount Olympus to reclaim his love. Or something like that.

Hanging on this plot, like tinsel on a Christmas tree, are jokes galore. Verbal, visual, musical, physical, and perhaps even subliminal, gags are everywhere. The book, by Douglas Carter Beane, is triumph of tone over taste. He gets away with murder because he has written a show that walks that breathtaking tightrope between coy and corny, assiduously avoiding both. Well, except for once: he teeters for a moment on that tightrope with one tired joke about Andrew Lloyd Weber (cut it, Mr. Beane, it's beneath you). But, like one of the better Marx Brothers movies, there are so many jokes that even if you laugh at every third one, you'll still be laughing all the time. Director Christopher Ashley keeps the show moving at a rat-a-tat pace that wisely never truly slows down, not even during the gloriously goofy ballads.

The score, by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar is loaded with familiar tunes that are delivered with sass, style, and comic flair. You are not likely to hear anything this season as rambunctiously hilarious as the duet of "Evil Woman" by Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman. To its credit, the show even makes fun of juke box musicals.

Cheyenne Jackson, the last minute replacement for the injured James Carpinello, displays not only his great pop voice but an unexpected gift for comic timing that borders on perfection. Here's a young Broadway star, late of All Shook Up, who really deserves his star status. Kerry Butler, perfectly cast for her ditzy, youthful charm, manages to be both winsome and slyly comic at the same time; it's her particular gift. Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman are a howl as the two bad girls; what a genius idea to put them together. Did Einstein cast this show? And we haven't even gotten to Tony Roberts, an old pro who anchors the production and gives it its sense of musical comedy roots. The rest of the cast, inclusive of Curtis Holbrook, Anika Larsen, Kenita Miller, Marty Thomas and Andre Ward all enhance the show with their comic vitality.

3 ½ Stars: Morning Star

This warmly mounted revival of Sylvia Regan's 1940 sentimental saga of a family on New York's Lower East Side manages to mostly overcome two obstacles on its way to a much-deserved ovation at the end.

The first obstacle is the play's lack of subtlety. For the most part, the playwright "indicates" far more than any actor you've ever seen; you know what's going to happen well before it takes place. Nonetheless, the play's sense of genuine authenticity provided by its spot-on dialogue goes a long way toward making you forgive the plot flaws.

The second obstacle is the performance of the lead, Susan Greenhill, who plays Becky Felderman, a mother struggling to keep her family together between the years 1910 and 1931. It's a great character role that requires a star performance. Greenhill has her moments but not enough of them to tally into the towering performance the play demands. On the other hand, the cast is otherwise very strong with some standout performances that turn the piece into an effective ensemble. Chief among the featured players who steps up to fill the void is Steve Sterner who all but steals the show with his hilariously delivered lines as the conscience-stricken boarder in the Felderman household. Other notable performances include Josh Philip Weinstein as bad boy son-in-law with an otherwise good heart, and Matthew DeCapua as the idealistic young teacher who loves Becky's youngest daughter and intends to marry her. Among the three daughters, Darcy Yellin makes a mark for herself in her big scene after the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Nostalgic yet bittersweet, Morning Star is less a great play than it is a great remembrance of the immigrant experience set to entrances and exits.


-- Barbara and Scott Siegel


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