Theater review: ‘Xanadu’

Theater review: ‘Xanadu’

By Elizabeth Maupin
Elizabeth Maupin on Theater

Xanadu, the Broadway musical, is nothing if not self-aware.

The people behind Xanadu know that it’s based on one of the kitschiest movies of all time, the 1980 movie-musical turkey that starred Olivia Newton-John and an aging Gene Kelly and tried to ride a craze – roller disco – that had already peaked and tanked.

And the people behind Xanadu, at Carr Performing Arts Centre this week, know that being based on one of the kitschiest movies of all time isn’t necessarily a bad thing – especially when 10-year-olds who didn’t know any better back in 1980 are rushing to embrace it now.

“This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people,” says one of the characters, a Greek muse named Calliope, one of a bunch of Greek muses who hang out around the show’s would-be roller disco in California’s Venice Beach.

I told you it was kitschy. But the sweet thing about Xanadu, Douglas Carter Beane’s 2007 Broadway musical, is how well it works. Poking fun at bad stuff is always fun. And poking fun at bad stuff from your childhood is even more fun – especially when you can guiltily enjoy it at the same time.

The key to all that fun, probably, is having been a child in 1980 and having grown up with Olivia Newton-John and with the music of the Electric Light Orchestra, which managed to be at the same time both bland and overwrought. If you were a full-fledged grownup 30 years ago, and if ELO doesn’t do it for you, Xanadu may bore you silly. Still, silly can be a pretty good thing.

Beane, who’s known in theater circles for the high-camp quotient of his comedies As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed, takes just the right attitude toward his now-aged source material. “They call me Kira,” says his roller-skating heroine, “which is good because that’s my name.”

“I would like to open a roller disco,” says the muscle-bound hero, a not-so-bright California boy named Sonny (think Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Says Kira, “How timeless.”

Kira, of course, is really the Greek muse Clio: Her disguise is skates, leg warmers and a bad Australian accent. And her sister muses (a couple of them played by men) are her Greek chorus, literally: Except for a couple of dozen lucky members of the audience, seated among the cast, there’s practically nobody else onstage.

Well, there’s also Danny, the old-rich-guy/developer who wants to tear down his old Xanadu theater and build condos. (This is 1980, remember.) And there are a couple of muses gone wrong, Melpomene and Calliope, who have it in for Clio and try to spoil her fun.

That’s pretty much all you need to know about the plot, which leans toward excess just as its songs – a combination of Jeff Lynne’s hits for ELO and John Farrar’s for Newton-John – lean toward melodrama. David Gallo’s set is little more than half a dozen crumbling Greek columns, a flying Pegasus and a disco ball. Dan Knechtges’ choreography is hokey as all get-out. And David Zinn’s costume design, beyond the muses’ sparkly robes, focuses on Sonny’s very brief denim shorts.

Of course, that’s as it should be with Sonny played by the hunky, hilarious Max von Essen, who plays stupid beautifully and sings better than Sonny has any right to sing. (Von Essen played the rebel leader Enjolras in Les Miserables, if that gives you a clue.) Anika Larsen (here in the tour of Avenue Q) makes a smart and spunky Kira, although there are no visible sparks flying between her character and Sonny. And Broadway/opera veteran Larry Marshall – thankfully, nothing like Gene Kelly – is a very hip Danny, whose big song, a Sinatra-like swing number, is cool enough to make you grin.

Natasha Yvette Williams and Annie Golden (the original Squeaky Fromme in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins and Jeannie in Milos Forman’s Hair) are a stitch as the evil muse duo. And the hard-working cast member who keeps turning up in different guises – as Terpsichore, Hermes and the suave, tap-dancing young Danny – may look familiar to local audiences: He’s Jesse Nager, artistic director of the Broadway Boys, who make their third annual appearance at the Orlando Cabaret Festival next week.

At an hour and 45 minutes or so, with no intermission, Xanadu can stretch on too long – although the young man on my right, who sang along to most of the numbers, seemed to be in ecstasy pretty much the whole time. Ecstasy may be a lot for Xanadu to shoot for. But swell is good, too.

What: Douglas Carter Beane-Jeff Lynne-John Farrar musical.
Where: Carr Performing Arts Center, 401 W. Livingston St., Orlando.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday April 28-Friday April 30, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday May 1, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday May 2.
Cost: $25-69.
Call: 1-800-448-6322.

Photos: Top, Larry Marshall, Anika Larsen, Max von Essen and cast. Bottom: Max von Essen. Photos by Carol Rosegg.

3 responses to “Theater review: ‘Xanadu’

  1. We lived in CT when this was on Broadway. Saw it twice and thoroughly enjoyed the heck out of it.
    It is absolutely ridiculous but so much fun to watch. We have seats on stage this time around. 🙂

  2. It would be fun to sit onstage (but hard to take notes up there!).

  3. Rick Stanley

    Betsey, Did you know that Annie Golden (an old pal) was also in the original cast of TABLOID in NY and originated the Becky Fisher alien baby mom role?