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Saturday, June 9, 2007

Xanadu on Broadway: Singing with Tongue in Cheek

My wife and I settled in to watch a preview performance of the new musical Xanadu on Broadway at the Helen Hayes theatre. Yes you really did read that. As the first song unfurled I wasn't quite sure where they were going to take this. Dancers flouncing about in ridiculous Solid Gold-esque costumes, ELO's so cheesy it's wonderful songs and lots of emoting -- this was either going to be po-faced homage or snarky send-up. Neither option really sounded appetizing. Then Kerry Butler, who stars as Greek muse-come-to-life Kira takes center stage and sets the tone for a madcap Mad Magazine style take on musicals, the kitschy 1980 film the musical is based on, celebrity culture, gay culture, Greek mythology, and anything else that strays into writer Douglas "The Little Dog Laughed" Carter Beane's sights. Butler is a star. Even if Xanadu closes after two weeks she should be assured of a bright future on Broadway and beyond. Can she rollerskate? No problem. Sing like Olivia Newton-John (star of Xanadu the film)? Yes, and she takes it one step further by using her considerable range and comic chops to find the humor in the phrasing and breathiness of Newton-John's original performances. Did I say comic chops? Butler is sharp and funny throughout, chewing on Kira's adopted faux-Aussie accent with aplomb. Her physicality is astounding, even on roller skates. You can feel the fun she's having with this challenging and unusual part.

This isn't to slight the rest of a talented cast by any means. James Carpinello plays sweet simple artist Sonny with a touch of earnestness and a dollop of Welcome Back Kotter - era Travoltaness. He also has a rich and clear voice and his wide-eyed line readings mark him out as the shows ingenue. Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman as two scheming muses nearly steal the show. Their performance of ELO's "Evil Woman" is a major highlight.

The great Tony Roberts is always deserving of his own paragraph -- and here it is. Beane's book takes the Danny Maguire character in an edgier direction than Gene Kelly's portrayal in the film and Roberts finds all the humor and some of the pathos within. His singing is wonderfully characterful and he delivers his lines with the timing of a master. He has even more fun in his dual role as uptight Zeus, and the cast singing of Newton-John chestnut "Have You Never Been Mellow" complete with centaur and cyclops to loosen him up nearly overshadows the actual climax.

Other than the two songs I mentioned previously all of the other music is from the movie score by Newton-John Svengali John Farrar and ELO mastermind/least-famous Wilbury Jeff Lynn. For anyone who grew up in the late 70's and early 80's and had a working radio that means a great big sugary nostalgia rush from songs like "Magic", "Suddenly" and the theme song.

The plot you ask? A muse inspires a mortal to create the apogee of the arts in 1980 Venice California: a roller disco. They fall in love, which is forbidden. This is played for all the ridiculousness inherent in the premise. The only hitch is an ending that, at least in previews, doesn't quite deliver the showstopping umpph required. Some of this may be due to the intimacy of the Helen Hayes theatre, which doesn't allow for much trickery or ga ga sets. The stage is further constrained by the now in-vogue group of seats on the stage itself. While the lack of a giant unfolding Victorian house or an onstage downpour or all the other gimmickry foisted on theatre-goers over the last several years is refreshing Xanadu is by it's nature gimmicky and tacky. As much as I loved seeing the delicious Ms. Butler downstage and singing vampily as a stagehand rose from the audience with a room fan to make her blow around, a little extra spectacle could make the singing of Xanadu - the theme song to the musical of the film, just as cathartically hilarious as "Have You Never Been Mellow" is a few scenes back.

Still this is a real treat. 4 out of five disco balls

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