Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Drury Lane Water Tower Place

Also see John's reviews of Desire Under the Elms and Beer

Elizabeth Stanley and Max Von Essen
In a week when the other big theater opening was the Goodman's revival of O'Neill's tragic Desire Under the Elms, one had to be struck by the irony of the sheer frothiness of the other—the opening of the Chicago company of the Douglas Carter Beane and Christopher Ashley's Xanadu. Though both shows borrow from Greek mythology—O'Neill took his plot largely from the myth of Phaedra and Hippolyte—Carter and Beane found a lot more hilarity in the doings of the gods from Mt. Olympus, or at least in the 1980 film on which this musical is based. In the midst of a winter filled with economic anxiety, it's nice to see a show in which the worst threat is a jealous goddess-sister or two.

Adapting one of the arguably worst films of the 20th century reportedly didn't seem like a sure winner to anyone involved, and maybe that relieved Beane and Ashley of the pressure to write one. Satirizing the film didn't seem like such a great idea, either—isn't Xanadu its own satire anyway? It certainly has its easy shots, like Olivia Newton-John's inexplicable Australian accent given that she's a goddess trying to pose as a 20th century American. Beane takes his share of them, but mostly they're gentle winks to let the audience know we're not intended to take any of this seriously but rather to sit back and enjoy the show. The songs, after all, were big hits back in the '70s and still pass for a pretty decent score when delivered by the sorts of top-shelf performers they had on Broadway and in the New York based cast that will be calling Chicago home for a time during this open-ended run.

Chief among the delights of this cast is Elizabeth Stanley in the Newton-John part, Kira. She ought to become one of the next big stars on Broadway once she gets the right part in the right show (she had the female lead in last year's short-lived Cry-Baby). She's funny, she can sing, she can move and she's attractive. Her presence and charisma are at the center of this Xanadu and Chicago theater-goers who catch her in it will likely be way ahead of many New Yorkers in recognizing her talent.

At the same, this production brings Max Von Essen to Chicago so we can see what his well-deserved buzz is all about. He makes a delightfully goofy himbo and, like Ms. Stanley, he nails the power pop ballads and skates pretty well, too. As Danny Maguire, played by Gene Kelly in the film and Tony Roberts on Broadway, Larry Marshall brings a velvety singing voice and smart blend of cynicism and likability to the character. Broadway veterans Sharon Wilkins and Joanna Glushak do just fine as the evil muse sisters who try to get Kira banished to the underworld.

The supporting cast covers a the secondary parts with skill and perfectly execute Dan Knechtges' choreography, which cleverly matches the Greek chorus practice of speaking in unison by having his dancers move in unison. Though hardly a high tech show, it has its moments, like the transition of the goddesses from chalk drawings on a wall to real performers and back to drawings again in the projections designed by Zachary Borovay.

Just as in the 1930s, it's nice to have a show that can take one's mind off the economy and, since it probably doesn't cost a fortune to run, it needn't cost a fortune to see. Plus, we got free glow sticks to wave during the title song!

Xanadu is in an open-ended run at the Drury Lane Water Tower Place at 175 E. Chestnut St. Tickets are available at any Broadway in Chicago box office, through Ticketmaster, or at the Drury Lane Water Tower box office.

Photo: Carol Rosegg

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area

-- John Olson

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