Fast-Paced Xanadu Delivers Gags and Laughs

Xanadu, the 1980 big screen disaster of legwarmers, Greek demi-gods and Electric Light Orchestra tunes that was Olivia Newton-John’s cinematic swan song, must have had a very patient muse watching over it. That muse, glimpsing something worthwhile amongst the flaming celluloid wreckage, waited twenty-some years before lacing up its roller skates and gliding over to playwright Douglas Carter Beane and director Christopher Ashley. How else to explain Xanadu’s miraculous rebirth into the fresh, campy and extremely clever musical that played Broadway for over 500 performances before roller skating across the country in a national tour?

Thankfully, only scraps remain from the movie’s original plot, and Beane (Broadway’s The Little Dog Laughed) has constructed a story that pokes so much fun at itself it’s nearly Swiss cheese by the last spin of the disco ball. Sonny (Max Von Essen), a frustrated Venice Beach artist in daring denim short-shorts, is visited by the beautiful muse Clio and subsequently decides to open a roller disco. Clio (Anika Larsen), disguising her muse-ness with roller skates, the alias Kira, and an outrageous Aussie accent, is alarmed when she discovers she’s fallen in love with Sonny, an action that’s guaranteed to make Zeus back at Mount Olympus very, very angry. But is their love true or simply a curse placed on the couple by Kira’s jealous, plotting sisters Melpomene and Calliope (the delightfully evil Natasha Yvette Williams and Annie Golden)?

Nothing, and I mean nothing, about Xanadu is subtle, which makes Larsen and Von Essen’s subdued performances perplexing. Goofiness is the key to making Sonny and Kira endearing, and the stakes just aren’t high enough here. Perhaps the cavernous interior of the Music Hall is partly to blame, but some gestures and glances don’t travel well past the first few rows (the show played the intimate 597-seat Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway.) But for those who long to actually be part of the show, limited onstage seating means you can get up close and personal—real personal—with the cast during the show. Besides providing a few sight gags, the visible audience mimics a traditional Greek chorus. If you’re brave enough to sit in the spotlight, don’t be surprised if you find yourself the victim of a joke or two.

Technically the show can be classified as a jukebox musical, with classic ELO tunes peppering the action and drawing many acknowledging murmurs from the audience. “Magic,” “Evil Woman,” and the title song are performed especially well, with support from the onstage orchestra led by Michael Sobie. The cast is appropriately decked out in glitter, spandex, and sweatbands, as well as flowing, diaphanous, Grecian garb thanks to costume designer David Zinn. The set by David Gallo and lighting by Howell Binkley lend kitschy yet functional support to this wonderfully silly tale, with more disco balls than you can shake a glow stick at. At only 90 minutes with no intermission, the show relies heavily on its momentum and never veers into tiresome territory. Beane slips in many sly references about the pitiable state of the arts since 1980, but in the case of Xanadu, the future is looking bright—and sequined.

Photo by Carol Rosegg for Dallas Summer Musicals