Sunday, July 13, 2008

Broadway Review: "Xanadu."

People were seriously upset that the creators of this show had not only joined the "Let's turn a movie into a stage musical!" bandwagon, but that they choose this particular movie to do it to. For you young 'uns out there, Xanadu is a terribly cheesy movie musical from 1980, starring Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck and the late, great Gene Kelly. It's a story about an unfulfilled artist and the Muse that inspires him to open a roller-disco and their efforts to get an old song-and-dance man to help them. That's it. The whole plot. A perpetual punch-line, this ridiculous movie had one thing going for it: a terrific soundtrack by Newton-John and ELO (Electric Light Orchestra).
Opening last year Off-Broadway, "Xanadu" recently moved into the Helen Hayes on 44th, and is the most energetic (and quite possibly the funniest) musical I've seen in years. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane (As Bees in Honey Drown; The Little Dog Laughed) does for the movie, what the 'Brady Bunch' movies did for that series, and his book is a perfect blend of cheese and parody, providing plenty of laughs along the way. Tongue planted firmly in cheeks, the fantastic cast not only looks great, but look like their having a great time, as well.
Sonny (Curtis Holbrook) has done a sidewalk chalk drawing of the Nine Muses, ancient Greek demi-goddesses who inspire art and culture. Thinking no one appreciates his work, Sonny is about to kill himself when his portrait suddenly comes to life (through a very clever mix of projected animation, a huge overhead mirror and hydraulic trap doors). Clio (the astounding Kerry Butler), has decided the muses must lend Sonny their help, and she takes his case personally, "cleverly" disguising herself by changing her name to Kira; donning roller skates and legwarmers and adopting a super-exaggerated (and totally hilarious) Australian accent. Soon, Sonny and Kira are falling for each other, and Clio's jealous sisters Calliope (Jackie Hoffman) and Melpemone (Annie Golden at the matinee I saw) plot to overthrow her by cursing her to fall in love with Sonny, something forbidden by their father, Zeus. Meanwhile, Sonny and Kira try to convince real-estate mogul Danny Maguire (Tony Roberts) to give them the use of an old theatre (The Xanadu) for free. Roberts later has a funny appearance near the end of the show as Zeus atop Olympus.
Butler is perfect for Clio/Kira and understands fully the material she's parodying, and her sweet singing voice is just an added bonus. Holbrook started off slow, but as the show gained momentum, his performance improved and the chemistry between he and Ms Butler became apparent. Hoffman and Golden are expert character actors, and their performances garnered a good deal of the shows' many yuks. The last thing I saw Tony Roberts in was "Victor/Victoria" and I must admit, I was less than thrilled with his performance (but I was just there for Julie, anyway), so I was dubious about his appearance in this show. But he did a fine job, and while he is no Gene Kelly, his voice is still strong and clear and he obviously understands comedic timing. The rest of the supporting cast is terrific, but the stand-out member of the company has to be Ryan Watkinson in multiple roles ranging from one of the Nine Sisters to a young Danny and a very funny turn as one of several mythical beasts.
The score uses all of the movie's songs and adds a few others as well, such as "Evil Woman" and Newton-John's "Have You Never Been Mellow?" (in one of the funniest of the show's many funny scenes, which also features a cyclops, Medusa and an hysterically executed centaur). Coming in at a crisp 98 minutes with no intermission ("Short?" Calliope remarks, near the end. "Next door, Lupone hasn't even humiliated her first daughter yet!"), "Xanadu" never gives its audience the time to question its silliness, so we just go right along with it. David Gallo's simple and functional set evokes the ruins of a Greek amphitheatre and Hal Brinkley's lighting is the perfect compliment.
Good fun for the whole family, "Xanadu" is perfectly suited for the intimate Hayes, where there are no really bad seats. Some audience members (about 20 or so) do get to sit on stage, though I think I would want to see it from the house, instead. "Xanadu" was nominated for the 2008 Best Musical Tony Award, but lost to "In the Heights." It also garnered noms for Best Book of a Musical (Beane) and Best Choreography (Dan Knechtges). Who knows? If the original film was half as intentionally funny as the show, it might actually have been a hit. **** (Four Stars)

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