by John Topping
published November 27, 2007
Now playing on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theater
For a movie that relatively few people have ever seen, the 1980 film musical “Xanadu” has had remarkable legs in maintaining its notoriety as one of the great clunkers of cinema, particularly movie musicals. After suffering through the wretched 1978 film musical “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” two years earlier – an early experiment in testing the boundaries of audience patience by transforming Beatles music into a visual mess – the zeitgeist was not in a forgiving mood for Electric Light Orchestra and Olivia Newton-John.
Back around the transition from spring to summer of this year, the talk began that “Xanadu” was going to be turned into a Broadway musical. Heads shook. Mouths dropped. Eyes bugged out. Disbeliefs were sputtered: “You can’t be serious!” “Are they crazy?” “Why would anyone want to … oh, who cares, it can’t be worse than anything that’s landed on Broadway before.” And then the brilliant four-word ad campaign started showing up on posters around town: “Xanadu. On Broadway. Seriously.” Thus came the first inkling that maybe these people actually knew what they were doing.
Indeed, they did. And now during the stagehand union’s strike, it is one of a handful of shows that can still be seen on Broadway, as the Helen Hayes Theater is not a member of the League of American Theaters and Producers. (It has also been beautifully renovated since the last time I was there, joining the welcome trend set by the renovation of Biltmore before it of actual comfortable seating.)
“Xanadu,” directed by Christopher Ashley, achieves the improbable: it manages to be dopey and smart at the same time – one of my favorite combinations. It’s dopey by maintaining the skeleton of the plot, which concerns a roller skating dude in Venice, California who dreams of building a roller disco and the Greek muse sent to guide him to fulfill his dream, plus the small complication of the mortal and the goddess falling in love, which is oh-so-verboten in those Greek god circles. And smart-alecky playwright Douglas Carter Beane has found a perfect vehicle to make his smart-aleckiness palatable. It maintains the original songs from the film (by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar) and takes the liberty of throwing in some ELO favorites (as well as the Newton-John hit “Have You Never Been Mellow?”).
There are three comic performances that stand out. Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman as the two jealous sister muses Melpomene and Calliope almost steal the show. But female lead Kerry Butler as the muse Kira manages to be both lovely and hysterically funny, although with Laura Bell Bundy in “Legally Blonde” and Sara Ramirez, the original Lady in the Lake in “Spamalot,” the combination of being beautiful, having a great singing voice and possessing spot-on comic timing is thankfully less and less of a rarity (or maybe the problem has been that too many musicals haven’t allowed these talents to emerge). Cheyenne Jackson as the roller skater with a dream and good ol’ Tony Roberts as the money man who was bewitched by Kira in his youth provide rock solid support.
There are more trends that “Xanadu” continues aside from the disorienting habit of turning movies into Broadway fare: the sweeping wave both on and off Broadway of shows that run approximately 90 minutes without an intermission; and the ever-increasing practice of having on-stage seating to rake in a few extra bucks. It’s also on the cutting edge of a newly emerging trend that I hope doesn’t stop: thoroughly entertaining new (non-revival) Broadway musicals that don’t make me wish I’d stayed home.
johntopping @ stageandcinema.com