Editors' pick

Xanadu

Musical
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Editorial Review

Review: Muse has sparkling moves
By Peter Marks
Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Empty calories don’t seem such a misguided nutritional choice when they’re served to you by a force like Erin Weaver, the vitamin-enriched musical star of Signature Theatre’s Xanadu,” a jaunty, airheaded 90 minutes of ’80s camp.

Let’s count the threats: She sings. She dances. She roller skates. She accomplishes these tasks with charm and aplomb while gliding across the stage in reverse -- and still having enough gas in the tank to belt out the high notes in a dozen pop ditties. In an Australian accent, no less! You might not have been shocked, in fact, if Weaver had played every role in the hyper-slight but delectably silly show -- and did it while holding flaming batons and hawking Almond Joys at intermission.

Fortunately, she has able backup for this candy-coated outing, especially in players such as Nova Y. Payton and Sherri L. Edelen, who add their own special sauciness to an entertainment drolly supervised by director-choreographer Matthew Gardiner. On Misha Kachman’s glitzy set, dotted with palm trees and bathed in the prom-night glow of two dozen disco balls, they and the rest of the cast sing their satirical hearts out. As it happens, it takes a whole lot of wind to keep a big wheel of cheese in the air.

For “Xanadu” falls into one of those odd theatrical subgenres. It’s an attempt to make a good stage musical out of a bad movie musical. No, not just bad, actually; one of those minor fiascoes for the ages. The 1980 “Xanadu,” starring Olivia Newton-John (whose film career never recovered from the fallout) and Gene Kelly (Gene Kelly?), told of a destitute album cover-painter played by Michael Beck, obsessed with a young woman (Newton-John) who turns out to be -- wait for it -- one of the nine Muses from Greek myth, sprung to life from a beach-side mural. The synopsis is the sort that leaves you wondering what they were smoking at the pitch meeting.

Is it possible to spin gold out of polyester? Playwright Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed”) was determined to find out, crafting a cheeky new book for the stage version that uses familiar tunes from the movie (such as “Magic”) and others from the period (“Evil Woman”) by songwriters Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. The hybrid Beane came up with -- which ran for 16 months on Broadway, in 2007-08 -- treats the material with both a jaundiced eye and a cockeyed grin. It is first and foremost a sendup of the cultural desert many of us recall as the era for such backward steps for Western civilization as the mullet.

In the vein of “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Xanadu” tries to appeal to that reservoir of affection we reserve for the garden of rotten tomatoes. You don’t have to know the movie, but it helps to have a memory of when leg warmers were all the rage and Journey was riding high. To pull off this kind of comedy with the proper doses of exuberance and belief is not that easy, although Payton and Edelen, playing two malicious muses, make it look like a breeze; their rendition of “Evil Woman” lifts the production to a higher, giddier realm.

Sometimes, however, the helium does drain from the proceedings and leadenness begins to assert itself. The problem is underlined in the performance of Charlie Brady, who plays Sonny Malone, the hunky beach-bum artist whose need for inspiration summons Weaver’s Clio.

Brady’s got the lunkhead thing down, but it’s his only gear; he doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself as much as the rest of the cast. (The actors playing six of Clio’s sisters-in-muse-ology are uniformly vibrant.) If Brady were to shed just a bit of what comes across as self-consciousness, more of Sonny’s natural charm would materialize, and the actor would take more confident charge of the stage.

Costume designer Kathleen Geldard drapes the muses in becoming style, and the lighting by Chris Lee adds the needed senses of glitter and luster. (Musical director Gabriel Mangiante works wonders with the four-piece accompaniment.) But the most radiant contribution belongs to Weaver, who, with this performance, sends a message to casting people all over the region: You have a musical, she’s ready to roll.

PREVIEW: The flop that wouldn't die
By Roger Catlin
Sunday, May 6, 2012

What chance did a 1980 movie voted one of the worst musicals of all time have of becoming a contemporary stage hit?

True, "Xanadu" had a soundtrack full of hits from star Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra. But they came in a loopy story about meeting a muse from Olympus, the opening of a roller disco nightclub, a weird animated segment and the worst script ever given Gene Kelly, in what was, sadly, his final film.

Most of the propulsion, though, comes with the wheeled footwear of the show. "Roller skates," says Matthew Gardiner, who is directing and choreographing a version of "Xanadu" at Arlington's Signature Theatre, "will be the death of me."

But what might have otherwise been forgotten with the Village People musical of the same year ("Can't Stop the Music") has been kept alive as a kind of so-bad-it's-good cult classic by those who saw it as children, diehard ELO fans or simple devotees of camp and the truly bad.

They combined to make a big enough audience to launch a combination parody/revival on Broadway - a re-creation based in an illogical love for the work, covered with a tart coat of pure ridicule.

Fueled by a similarly combined send-up and homage to the past found in "Grease," and "Hairspray," and the smorgasbord of nostalgia-aged cheese in the Abba-fueled "Mamma Mia," a stage musical version of "Xanadu" seemed inevitable, especially after the success of a "Xanadu Singalong" in Hollywood in 2001.

And in 2007, when Douglas Carter Beane ("To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar") did a sharp rewrite that ridiculed the film but nonetheless celebrated the songs - and the era of feathered hair and legwarmers - it earned a pair of Tony nominations, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the and the Drama Desk Award for Best Book, and ran for 500 performances.

"A lot of people don't see how well constructed the piece is," says Gardiner. The singing, roller-skating production that begins Tuesday stars Erin Weaver, Charlie Brady, Sherri L. Edelin and Nova Y. Payton.

Like a lot of the audience, "I grew up watching the original film," says Gardiner, 28.

It starred Newton-John, the Australian pop singer who had helped revive the movie musical with "Grease" two years before, as a Greek muse come to life to inspire a dejected artist, played by Michael Beck, who had just become a star in his own cult classic "The Warriors" the year before.

As he chases her around Venice Beach and a number of oddly Art Deco-style sets, he runs into an old Glenn Miller sideman played by Gene Kelly, who is essentially reprising a role he played in 1944, nightclub owner Danny McGuire in the Rita Hayworth musical "Cover Girl" (although "Xanadu" essentially remakes another Hayworth musical, the 1947 "Down to Earth").

"Xanadu" was one of the first credits of choreographer Kenny Ortega, who would go on to choreograph "Dirty Dancing" and direct and choreograph "Newsies," the "High School Musical" films and "Michael Jackson's 'This Is It.' "

But his choreography in "Xanadu" "is the most atrocious ever on film," declares Gardiner, who aims to blend in his choreography, per the playwright's instruction, "Isadora Duncan and the Solid Gold Dancers." Plus skates.

The movie wasn't a complete failure - it made back its money in a way a movie with a soundtrack selling 5 million copies will do. But its reviews were so scathing ("Xana-don't," Esquire urged) that it effectively ended any hope of reviving movie musicals in the wake of "Grease."

For Newton-John, "basically it ended her movie career," Gardiner says.

She did well with her "Xanadu" singles, though, with the No. 1 "Magic," the duet with Cliff Richard, "Suddenly," and her hit version of the film's theme song - the only intersection between her and Jeff Lynne, the ELO mastermind who wrote it.

For the 2000 boxed set "Flashback," Lynne recorded a new version of "Xanadu," which had reached No. 8 in its original incarnation and was the band's only British No. 1 hit ("I always liked the song, and fancied another go at it," he says in the liner notes).

But the British band scored three other hits from the project - "I'm Alive" (No. 16), "All Over the World" (No. 13) and "Don't Walk Away" (No. 21 in the U.K.), which played during the movie's animated segment.

The "Xanadu" songs came near the end of ELO's time as a band. But there's been a revival of its work in films and, especially, commercials this decade, with "Mr. Blue Sky" (1977, "Out of the Blue" album) alone used in ads for the movies "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Adaptation," as well as in ads from Target, JetBlue, Sears and Volkswagen.

A couple of more ELO hits were added to the "Xanadu" stage musical - "Evil Woman" and "Strange Magic" - and it also adds Newton-John's ever-cheesy ballad "Have You Never Been Mellow," and a film song not included on the original soundtrack album, "Fool Country," written, as were many of her hits, by John Farrar.

Despite all the hits, "When I'm directing it, it doesn't feel like it's a jukebox musical," Gardiner says. "The songs actually propel the story forward and have a purpose."