If anyone had told me in 1980, the year the film musical Xanadu was released, that 27 years later I would be writing a rave of its Broadway adaptation, I would have said: “Shoot me now.”
At the moment of its release, the film’s disco balls, synthetic sheen and star, Olivia Newton-John, represented the cheapness of tinsel and glitter.
That the new Xanadu, starring a sprightly Kerry Butler in the Newton-John role, delighted me is additionally puzzling.
I will go to my grave maintaining that another musical that recycles disco-era hits, Mamma Mia, is the most massive load of manure ever unloaded on a Broadway stage.
So why does Xanadu zip? First, the interval-less evening, which has a new book by Douglas Carter Beane but retains the ELO-inspired original songs, has the gift of modesty. At the Helen Hayes, Broadway’s smallest house, the show’s roller-skating performers practically spill into the audience’s lap.
Second, unlike most of Broadway, Xanadu doesn’t bear the corporate assembly-line stamp. Its young producers – who had the good sense to hire Christopher Ashley, an old hand at camp, to stage the project – give the show an irresistible enthusiasm. Songs such as “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” receive a fresh workout.
Third, respect has been lavished on the fractured-myth side of the story. One of the Greek muses, incarnated as an Aussie lass called Kira (the Newton-John role), encounters an artist named Sonny (Cheyenne Jackson in this version) and, with
the help of a man she had inspired
40 years before (Gene Kelly in the film, Tony Roberts here), opens a roller disco.
Finally, this Xanadu’s parade of muses, spectacularly led by the taffy-faced Jackie Hoffman and the broad Mary Testa, function not just as a Greek chorus but as a clique who critique Broadway kitsch itself.
The show’s book has dead spots, and I wish Jackson’s comedic skills were as sensational as his singing. Otherwise, in a summer where Broadway’s only other opening is that hardly overlooked Newton-John classic Grease, Xanadu’s irreverence is ambrosial.
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