“Do you know what a Muse is? — Kira
“Isn’t that like a little alley with quaint brownstones?” — Sonny
Xanadu is campy, goofy and silly in the extreme but also irresistibly disarming in its reincarnation as a giddy and light Broadway musical. Although I suspect that many of my critical colleagues will not share my enthusiasm, there comes a time when admitting to simply having a good time is it own reward. In a perverse change of course: one that previously inspired perhaps a few too many Broadway musicals based on Hollywood films, the collaborators of Xanadu have taken their cue from its origin as one of the most misguidedly messy and unsuccessful musicals in Hollywood history.
Christopher Ashley (All Shook Up), has taken up the task with considerable aplomb. He has directed this mini-spectacle on a stage that has been known to restrict the action of even solo performers. He has had his work cut out for him. A series of injuries plagued the show during its rehearsal and preview period. James Carpinello, originally cast in the lead role of Sonny has been replaced (for an indefinite period) by Cheyenne Jackson, who, under Ashley’s direction, starred in All Shook Up. At the performance I saw, Patti Murin played the multiple roles of a Muse, a Siren, and a 40’s singer usually played by Kenita Miller.
Far from being the disaster that cynics were reporting almost daily while the show was in previews, Xanadu is rather filled with a wise child’s disregard for traditional theatrical convention and a steadfast belief in its own midsummer-styled madness. It actually makes one think of an extended skit one might see in Forbidden Broadway. It is so earnestly motivated by its own sense of reckless abandon that we may think it has have been decreed by an eccentric hierarchy that presumably still wields power on Mount Olympus.
What a coup it was for the six young producers to convince Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed) to attack the original and irretrievably lame 1980 screenplay with his sharp wit. His eagerness to exercise his formidable gift for parody is in full bloom in the comical faux classical Grecian patter mixed into mod lingo of the 1980s.
The plot, for those unfamiliar with the film, concerns Clio, the Muse of History and leader of the muses who comes down to earth in 1980, abetted by her six raucous sister Muses, to inspire an artistic achievement, a roller disco. An artist has drawn a mural of the Muses that conveniently serves as their gateway to earth. Clio meets this good-looking guy with the paint brush who is looking for his muse and . . . you don’t need to know more than that.
As implied in the above quote, two muses of myth Melpomene (Mary Testa) and Calliope (Jackie Hoffman) deliver the bulk of the funny repartee in this vein: Melpomene, “Oh there are many reasons why mortals fall in love. For some, it is lust. For other, it is companionship. For a few in the San Fernando Valley, it is simply because the other one has air conditioning. But we shall make them fall in love in the most lethal way know. We shall make them complete one another.”
Calliope, “Girl, you are a menace.”
You won’t find more accomplished comediennes anywhere than Testa and Hoffman, and as a team they are unbeatable, especially as costumed in haute Grecian chic by designer David Zinn. Hoffman may have the biggest mouth in the business since Martha Raye and Testa certainly has the brassiest delivery (“I try to dress simply, and just let my personality be the star.”). Together they are a hoot as a gruesome twosome that conspires to put a curse on Kira and Sonny.
At its best, as it often is, Xanadu is braced by a terrific cast skilled at the kind of broad and brashly delivered humor that requires significant skill as well as leg warmers. The delightful rock score by Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra fame) and John Farrar, who wrote and produced most of the hits performed by Olivia Newton-John (the star of the film version) elicited approval from audience members, many of whom recall the many songs, including the title song, “Magic,” “Party All Over the World,” and “I’m Alive,” that became popular hits.
Kerry Butler, a winsome blonde who charmed us as Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors and as the original Penny in Hairspray, sings, cavorts and falls in love beguilingly as Clio, the Muse destined against her will to fall in love with Sonny (Jackson) and help him open his roller disco in an abandoned theater. Butler’s part tongue-in-cheek, part feet-in-roller skates performance perfectly balances Jackson’s hunky charismatic posturing. Jackson in cut off jeans shows off a lot of leg in the exhilarating dance numbers created by choreographer Dan Knechtges. He also exhibits a respectable aptitude for roller skating, even if he isn’t in the same league with the excitingly showcased featured skater David Tankersley.
The ever affable Tony Roberts saunters through the inanities with assurance as Danny, the successful entrepreneur and owner of the abandoned theater (the role played in the film by Gene Kelly), who recognizes Clio as his own Muse Tangarine from his younger days. Curtis Holbrook dances with distinctive esprit, as the younger Danny. Roberts gets his fair share of laughs also doubling in the role of Zeus in a climactic scene in the Pantheon on Mount Olympus and where Sonny notes with remarkable perception, as such mythical creatures as a Cyclops, Medusa, and a centaur roam about, “just like it looks in the `80s film Clash of the Titans. In support, Patti Murin, Anika Larsen, and Andre Ward chirp and terp with vivacity to spare in their various roles as Muses, Sirens, gods and goddesses and back up singers and dancers.
Xanadu is a far cry in terms of scope and ambition from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s skating spectacle Starlight Express, but the restraints of space on the stage of the Helen Hayes Theater actually add to the fun. David Gallo’s simple set features a couple of short ramps, but it also utilizes a large round reflective mirror that gives an added dimension. There is even room made for two rows of stage seating as well as for Kira to mount Pegasus, the flying horse for a ride through the clouds to Mount Olympus.
A small but vigorously employed orchestra is perched upon the stage within a frame of Grecian columns. Enveloping Xanadu is Howell Binkley’s glittering prisms-dominated lighting. But most notable is the overall aura of “ Strange Magic,” (as sung by Kira, Sonny, Melpomene, Calliope and Eros) that hovers over this occasionally strange but more often surprisingly magical show.
Xanadu, Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street. Telecharge: 212-239- 6200. $41.25 – $111.25. Student seats: $26.25 day of and at box office only.