Who would have thought a 1980 big budget movie musical turkey starring Olivia Newton-John would be reincarnated on Broadway as an absurdly silly send up of itself.
The jukebox musical Xanadu is the first show of the new Broadway season and from the looks of things may be just what the doctor ordered, “Inspired magic to heal what ails you.” This deft spoof at the Helen Hayes Theatre has audiences roaring with delight at the preposterous shenanigans from the top notch ensemble.
The movie of the same name was a bomb that has often been credited with killing Olivia Newton John’s film career, but there are some surprisingly nimble songs from the film that are included in the score by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. Tunes that were top 20 Billboard hits back then and hold up very well today sprinkling the evening with a heavy dose of nostalgia. Amongst them are “Magic,” Party All over the World,” “I’m Alive,” and of course the title song “Xanadu.” The music appears to be the main reason for turning a really dreadful film with an apparent cult following into a first class Broadway production.
Jeff Lynne wrote and produced all of the music for the British band, Electric Light Orchestra and John Farrar was responsible for most of the hits Olivia Newton-John performed during the 1970’s. In addition to all the E.L.O. hits from the film the composers have thrown in some of Newton-John’s big chart toppers as well. You may remember “Have You Ever Been Mellow,” which shows up here.
Now to the mix add a sublimely campy book from the gifted playwright Douglas Carter Beane, who is responsible for last season’s Tony nominated Broadway hit The Little Dog Laughed, which snared a Tony award for its leading lady Julie White, lampooning Hollywood, and the smart producers have the makings of a hit. Beane also wrote As Bees in Honey Drown, an excellent parody of the art world that won the Outer Critics Circle Award Off-Broadway many seasons ago. His script, a preposterous send up of the original screenplay, kitsch with a capital “K,” is forever winking at itself with bemused bliss and exits purely for its own enjoyment and of course to elicit serious laughter from the audience.
The story is based on the original film, which was itself loosely based on an even earlier Rita Hayworth movie, “Down to Earth.” The concept has nine muses from Mount Parnassus coming alive to assist a Venice Beach artist Sonny Malone (Cheyenne Jackson) achieve his dreams. His sidewalk chalk mural depicting them evokes their spirits and puts the unfolding events in action.
The muse of history Clio (Kerry Butler), who calls herself, Kira, here, saunters about on roller skates and legwarmers designating herself his personal guide. Her task is to make his dreams come true by establishing “the apex of all the arts – a roller disco.” The story for all its outlandish wish fulfillment fantasy seems to be forever looking for yet another clever way to spoof itself and unfortunately for me grew tedious after about 20 minutes.
There is some very witty work from the talented cast, however, and the two leads, Butler and Jackson, are utterly charming. Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa as Clio’s jealous sisters, Calliope and Melpomene, give over the top knock out performances and their song “Evil Women,” which has the two comedians chewing the scenery with abandoned relish is probably the evening’s most memorable piece of business.
But this is one show we definitely don’t agree on, as Gordin loved every silly, outrageous, ridiculously campy moment and can’t wait to see it again. I on the other hand, although I felt the actors delivered wonderful zany zestfully committed performances and all were in outstanding voice, grew tired of the
contrivances. At a mere 90 minutes the evening still seemed over long with little but the marvelous tongue in check performances to sustain it. If you haven’t easy access to your inner child this new musical may not be your cup of tea, but if you are, come prepared to play and your face will hurt from perpetually smiling.
Director Christopher Ashley, who claims to have seen the movie 145 times, has staged the evening at a break neck pace that has only a few down moments. His work here is not as inventive as his superior tooling on the Broadway musical All Shook Up, from a couple of seasons ago, but he get the job done with panache. To quote Mr. Bean’s book “This is like children’s theater for 40 year old gay people.”
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published on Hamptons.com
Xandau opened on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, on July 10, 2007. Tickets are available online at Telecharge.com and by phone at 212-239-6200 or at the theatre box office.