Xanadu Reviewed

Seriously?  Seriously.
So goes the tag line in advertisements for Xanadu, the implausible Broadway summer hit based on the disastrous 1980 film flop directed by Robert Greenwald. The film itself was a colossal mess in every conceivable way, and is credited and killing the very different film careers of all three of its stars: Michael Beck, Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly! (Greenwald, on the other hand, went on to an illustrious career as a documentarian.) The soundtrack, on the other hand, enjoyed better success, spawning hit singles for both Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra, and has kept it in the public’s frame of mind for nearly three decades (the film even got a shout-out in an installment of VH1’s I Love the ‘80s series.)
The biggest problem with Xanadu was that it took itself too seriously as a movie musical. So now, Douglas Carter Beane, hot off the success of last year’s Hollywood-skewering Broadway smash The Little Dog Laughed, has done an update of the musical version that – genius! – actually also provides for a plot. When speaking of the film version, Beane has said, “I blame cocaine... It’s like people say, 'When you hear Ray Charles play, you can hear the heroin'? When you watch Xanadu, you can see the cocaine up on the screen.” But the film version is a blessing in disguise for Beane; since there was never any explanation for what happened in the film, he can invent his own reasons for what goes on. And Beane does, with relish.  There are few similarities between the film and the show: character names, most songs, and roller skates. He has molded something clever (and still fun!) out of the mire. Not since The Bridges of Madison County adaptation has such a work of alchemy been seen.
Xanadu finds a talented but hapless SoCal artist named Sonny Malone (Cheyenne Jackson; Curtis Roberts at the performance I attended) looking for inspiration. He finds it in the form of Kira (Kerry Butler), who has declared herself his muse. Kira is also Clio, one of nine demi-Gods who happen to be the daughters of Zeus. Having emerged from one of Sonny’s murals, she has opted to take mortal form and help Sonny create the most artistic invention possible – a roller disco, which somehow incorporates all of the arts. (I said Beane added a plot, not that he made everything sensible.)
Clio falls for Sonny, but her jealous sisters Melpomene (Mary Testa) and Calliope (Jackie Hoffman) curse her, providing much of the necessary plot that somehow was never deemed requisite for the film version. Film star Tony Roberts takes over the Kelly role as Danny, the entrepreneur who chooses to bankroll the roller disco because it reminds him of someone from his past, with his signature aplomb. And while all three play their parts with gusto, it should be mentioned that all other cast members do the same – and in roller skates. It is to Dan Knechtges’ credit that he is able to choreograph such deceptively simple acrobatics.

Kerry Butler in Xanadu. Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Kerry Butler in Xanadu. Photo by Paul Kolnik.
Butler is a delight, amplifying Newton-John’s Aussie accent for no reason except for Beane’s desire to do so, it would seem. Testa joins Butler’s over-the-top delivery. The two camp it up but never at the risk of unprofessionalism. Beane throws in many knowing winks to the audience, who may or may not have seen the 1980 film, alluding to Clash of the Titans and declaring that entertainment went downhill after the year of his film’s release. Also, in addition to such hits as "Don’t Walk Away", "Magic", "Suddenly", "Suspended in Time" and the title track, Beane has also thrown in other signature songs for both Newton-John (“Have You Never Been Mellow?” and ELO (“Evil Woman”) that actual function well enough to move the plot along and provide character background. It’s a mystifying move that somehow also makes total sense. 
A bit of background: Holbrook is really a stand-in for a stand-in. Jackson himself is substituting for Xanadu’s original lead, James Carpinello, who injured himself in rehearsals. So my initial reaction to seeing Holbrook’s name as the star was one of disappointment. Yet it was a reaction quickly dispelled by seeing what a stellar talent Holbrook emerged to be. His dodo-headed Valley-boy delivery, athletic moves, rich voice and chemistry with Butler all make him a star to watch. You’ve heard how hard it is to play dumb? Try acting dumb, singing dumb, and skating dumb. Talk about a triple-threat.
Other members of the Xanadu family deserve mention too: Set designer David Gallo, costumer David Zinn, lighting artist Howell Binkley, wig/hair designer Charles G. LaPointe, and Andre Ward, one of the other demi-Gods who takes on an additional role late in the game. Of course, director Christopher Ashley moves the show so fast, one never gets the sense that the game is running at all long in the first place. He and Beane together prove a lot of flair can make up for a lack of substance. Like the roller disco itself, Xanadu the show certainly doesn’t qualify as art, but it makes for one heck of a night out.

Further Reading on M&C