Xanadu was a 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John, about which a debate still rages: Was it, or wasn't it, the worst film musical ever made? (Those who vote "Yes" may never have seen Paint Your Wagon.) Though Xanadu has since become a cult classic, and delights audiences at midnight shows in San Francisco, it seemed unlikely a stage version on Broadway was a good idea. However, the very gifted playwright Douglas Carter Beane (As Bees in Honey Drown, The Little Dog Laughed) was retained to update the book and, after some workshops, it opened on Broadway, to acclaim, Tony nominations, and a 513-performance run.
The comedy is a light-hearted spoof, less savage than a satire, and less overblown than a parody. The plotline is basically simple: the demi-gods on Mount Olympus are forbidden to fall in love with mere mortals, but the muse of History, Clio, falls in love with Sonny Malone, an artist who draws chalk murals in Venice, California. Sonny is dissatisfied with his work - bad composition - and so decides to commit suicide, but is dissuaded from doing so by Clio.
This should give a rough idea of the suspension of judgment required here. But then the frequently-employed Mt. Olympus-mere mortal theme (One Touch of Venus with Ava Gardner, Down to Earth with Rita Hayworth) puts us squarely in the realm of fantasy, and only a curmudgeon would bring along a T-square to calculate reality.
A line in the musical comedy best describes it: "This is like children's theater for 40-year-old gay people!" I quote the line as an indication that the plot is simplistic, and also as an alert that the two actors portraying male Muses camp it up in so flamboyantly, and so enthusiastically, that their sexuality (the characters, not the actors) is beyond question. I hasten to add that their appeal is universal, and that the largely straight audience at Stages was on its feet applauding vehemently as the comedy ended.
Mitchell Greco directed and choreographed, with brilliant aplomb. The movement is virtually nonstop, and always interesting, with considerable variety, and some wit, such as when a telephone is needed on stage. Greco keeps the pace moving with vigorous energy, finds the laughs, and delivers in spades what the authors intended.
Holland Vavra plays Clio, and brings a luminous beauty, acting chops, and a compelling way with a song, and could not be better. Cameron Bautsch plays Sonny, and provides an endearing portrait of a likable nerd, but the sexual chemistry between them is largely invisible. If they ever get to bed each other (they don't) I imagine they would simply trade teddy-bears, turn over and go to sleep, to dream of angels. This is the central way this production differs from that in New York, where Cheyenne Jackson, with rock star looks and a toned body, portrayed Sonny, suggesting the possibility of some genuine future excitement under the covers.
Book-writer Beane added a plot twist, as muse Melpomene (Tamara Siler, great gospel voice) and muse Calliope (Julie Simpson Garcia, in harlequin glasses) act like the jealous sisters in Cinderella, and plot against Clio. Both are hilarious, and their joyous bonding in evildoing is a delight to observe. Thomas prior plays Danny Maguire, older owner of a club that Sonny wants to turn into a roller-disco art haven (go figure), and is excellent as a soft-hearted businessman with a backstory of missed opportunities.
The entire chorus is wonderful, but special mention must go to Mark Ivy, who is outstanding as the muse Thalia, and as the young Maguire in a flashback, and who creates a vivid portrayal, singing and dancing, even when compelled to don a centaur outfit. The four-piece band is great, and the production first-rate, though costume designer Andrew Cloud might have opted for cut-off jeans for Sonny instead of hot pants - Cheyenne Jackson wore both.
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The music and lyrics are by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. I especially liked the opening number "I'm Alive", and "Don't Walk Away" which closed Act I, and "Fool" which opened Act II, and as well as "Evil Woman" and "Have You Never Been Mellow?", which were not in the film.
Xanadu is a triumphant lark of a musical, as light as a cloud and as joyous as a sunbeam, funny and endearing. See it, for a rollicking good time.
Xanadu continues through
June 29 July 29, Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or ticketing, contact 713-527-0123 or www.stagestheatre.com