Who would ever have thought that Xanadu, one of biggest critical and commercial flops of the 1980s, would turn into a hit Broadway musical of the 2000s? Even the musical’s book writer, Douglas Carter Beane, is said to have had doubts about turning that lemon into lemonade. He need not have feared.  Xanadu scored a pair of Tony nominations, including one for Beane, and ran for over 500 performances.

L.A. and Orange County audiences can now discover the magic “you have to believe in” by catching the Xanadu National Tour’s only scheduled Southern California appearance at Costa Mesa’s Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Those who recall Xanadu the movie (i.e., actually quite a lot of you, as the film went on to become a cult hit on VHS and DVD) know that it starred Olivia Newton-John as Kira, an ancient Greek muse who traveled through time to 1980 in order to inspire frustrated artist Sonny Malone to greatness.  Xanadu also featured a quintet of songs (“Magic,” “Xanadu,” “All Over The World,” “I’m Alive,” and “Suddenly”) which went on to become Top 20 Hits for Newton-John and/or ELO.  Beane blended the movie’s wisp of a storyline with plot threads from 1981’s Clash Of The Titans to create a campy, deliciously self-aware script filled with laughs galore. He found Juke Box Musical ways to interpolate the movie’s songs into the dialog, and added ELO’s “Strange Magic” and “Evil Woman” and Newton-John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow” to the film’s eleven songs, giving Xanadu one of the most recognizable and “sing-along-able” Broadway scores of recent years.  

Xanadu The Musical has Kira’s two jealous sisters Melpomene and Calliope plotting against Zeus’s youngest child by tricking her into breaking one of the Greek gods’ cardinal rules (“A muse is forbidden to fall in love with a mortal”), and failing that, by having Eros (that’s Cupid in Roman mythology) shoot Kira and Sonny with his love arrows.  As in the movie, Sonny teams with mogul Danny McGuire to bring an abandoned auditorium back to life, but here, Sonny’s dream is for “Xanadu” to become not only a center for the arts but also … a Roller Disco!

Those who’ve seen the movie “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” or the Tony-nominated [for Best Play of 2006-7] The Little Dog Laughed will have some idea of Beane’s particular take on life and laughter. The campier your sense of humor and the more aware of 1980s pop culture you are, the more you will enjoy the absolutely hilarious book he has written for Xanadu.  Take, for example this bit of dialog:

Kira:  I will go in disguise to help this Sonny in his quest for artistic achievement.
Muses: Huzzah!
Kira:  First, I will not call myself Clio, I will call myself Kira!
Muse:  You’ve thrown them off the track now!
Kira:  Secondly, I will wear roller-skates and leg warmers!
Muse:  You will be as current as today’s headlines!
Kira:  And thirdly I will sport an Australian accent!  G’day, mate!

Xanadu The Musical knows how bad its source material is, how bad 1980 fashions were, and how Australian Olivia Newton-John’s accent was in the film, and so we laugh … and laugh and laugh.

The Xanadu tour brings to SoCal two of Broadway’s brightest young stars, Elizabeth Stanley (Cry-Baby, Company) and Max von Essen (Les Misérables, Dance Of The Vampires, Jesus Christ Superstar), and they are both fabulous.  Stanley looks gorgeous in pink taffeta, sings dazzlingly, roller-skates with grace, has tip-top comic timing, and sports an deliciously exaggerated Australian accent with some of the longest vowels in musical theater history. Von Essen (whom L.A. audiences will remember from his performance in the title role in Dorian) looks gorgeous in tight tank top and short shorts, sings dazzlingly, roller-skates with grace (though the script requires of Sonny less time-on-skates), has tip-top comic timing, and plays Valley Boy dumb with the best of them. The pair originated their roles at the La Jolla Playhouse a year ago, and the friendship they have developed over the past year (see my interviews with Elizabeth and Max) shows in their onstage chemistry.

As Melpomene, Natasha Yvette Williams gets the biggest laughs among the muse sisters, and speaking of big, has pipes to reach the back row of the humungous OCPAC. Annie Golden does amusing work as the dithery Calliope, choosing wisely not to imitate the Broadway original, the inimitable Jackie Hoffman. Larry Marshall (as Danny, the role Gene Kelly played in the movie) proves himself a terrific song-and-dance man in the classic movie musical tradition, and Jesse Nager (as Young Danny) tap dances sensationally.  Nager and Kevin Duda are hot hoots as the more, shall we say, virile of Clio/Kira’s sisters.  Veronica Kuehn and Chaunteé Schuler do excellent work too as muse sisters Euterpe and Erato. All of the above play more than one role, leading to a hilarious wink of a joke about double casting. Amy Goldberger (Skater) and David Tankersley (Specialty Skater) pop in for the show’s grand multi-mirror-balled finale and understudy lead roles, as do swings Vincent Rodriquez III and Tiffany Topol.

Truth be told, Xanadu does come across pretty low-budget for a Broadway show.  It has a relatively small cast, a single, rather simple set (by David Gallo), a four-piece orchestra, and runs about as long as the first act of Wicked. Fortunately, under the sparkling direction of Christopher Ashley, this scarcely matters, the show’s highly recognizable songs, dandy performances, fun choreography (by Dan Knechtges), and rocking backup band (Broadway music director/conductor/hottie Jesse Vargas on keyboards) making this ninety-five minutes of fabulous fun. Lighting by Howell Binkley, costumes by David Zinn, sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, hair and wig design by Charles G. Lapointe, and an amazing projection design by Zachary Borovay all get thumbs up.

I enjoyed every minute of Xanadu, laughed over and over again, mouthed the words to each and every song, and even shed a tear or two when Stanley and von Essen duetted “Suspended In Time.” (A more exquisite ballad I’d be hard-pressed to name.) L.A. theater lovers are hereby advised that OCPAC is the Xanadu tour’s only scheduled Southern California stop, so here’s my suggestion.  Make a day of it.  Do some Christmas shopping at South Coast Plaza, enjoy dinner at one of SCP’s many restaurants, and head cross the street to see Xanadu.  Sound like a plan?

Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
December 16, 2009
                                                                           Photos: Carol Rosegg

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