Xanadu the right thing

May 23

Xanadu 1
Brittany Danielle (center) is Kira in the Center Repertory Company production of Xanadu. Her phalanx includes (from left) Catherine Gloria as Euterpe, Maureen McVerry as Calliope, Evan Boomer as Terpsicore, Mark Farrell as Thalia, Dyan McBride as Melpomene and Sharon Rietkerk as Erato. Below: Tom Reardon (left) as Danny and Tim Homsley as Sonny. Photos by www.kevinberne.com

Summer camp has started early this year, but not to worry. This is some high quality high camp.

We’ve had a few Bay Area productions of Xanadu, the Broadway musical version of the notorious 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John as a roller-skating light bulb, er, sorry, roller-skating Muse (you know, from Mt. Olympus kind of muse). The Retro Dome in San Jose and New Conservatory Theatre Center in San Francisco both did the show last year, but having missed the show during its 2007/08, I was waiting for the Center Repertory Company production that just opened.

I’m so glad I waited.

Before I tell you how fabulous this production is – and fabulous really is the operative word on so many levels – I have to confess to being a Xanadu fan. There’s a joke in the show about this being “children’s theater for 40-year-old gays,” and it’s like book writer Douglas Carter Beane was talking directly to me. I was 13 when, at the grocery store, I bought the soundtrack album to Xanadu (yes, on vinyl) before seeing the film. I was completely enthralled with Side 1 as the Olivia Newton-John side and Side 2 as the Electric Light Orchestra. There were guest appearances by the rock band The Tubes (“Dancin’”), Cliff Richard (“Suddenly”) and Gene Kelly (“Whenever You’re Away from Me”), and then ON-J herself appeared on the ELO side to sing the synth-happy title song. It was bliss.

Then I saw the movie, and even at 13 I knew it was crap. Sure I liked it, but it wasn’t nearly as good as what I had imagined looking at the production photos on the album cover while I memorized the songs.

I must say I was doubtful about the joke-laden Broadway translation of the movie as a glorified jukebox musical, especially because I never warmed to the Broadway cast recording. But now, having seen an exuberant and very funny production of the show, I’ve come closer to seeing that original version in my 13-year-old head.

Xanadu 2

Director Jeff Collister and a cast of stalwart comedians make great use of the three essential “S’s”: silliness, sassiness and sincerity. Everybody gets the joke that they’re in an intentionally campy, in-joke send-up of the original movie, the “stinkaroo” movie as someone on the show describes it. But there’s also some sweetness in between the abundant laughs. Beane has gone a long way toward making sense of the movie by actually giving it a plot, and now the title song, sung in full-tilt, rainbow-flag waving glory at the end, actually makes a modicum of sense. No mean feat.

When a Venice Beach (California) chalk artist meets his muse, he’s inspired to open up a palace that infuses all art forms with something athletic. “I want to open a roller disco,” says Sonny the (very) blond artist (Tim Homsley). “How timeless,” responds Kira, the muse in disguise (Brittany Danielle). It’s amazing her wheels aren’t slipping in the puddles of irony filling the stage.

The goal for both Sonny and Kira (who’s actually the Muse Clio, born of Zeus) is to be granted the “state of Xanadu.” What that is, who can say, but every time the word is uttered, someone pops up to repeat it as if it’s really, really, really important (not unlike the show itself). It’s all ridiculous but in a mostly sublime way. Smart without being overly so and stupid in just the right measure.

And then there are all those songs, most from the original soundtrack with a few ON-J and ELO songs thrown in for good jukebox-y measure. Whether or not these are good songs, I cannot say. They’re my songs. I love them and I still know all the words. So hearing musical director Brandon Adams’ crack quartet spinning out these peppy, poppy tunes is a nostalgic delight.

Enough cannot be said about leading lady Danielle, who sings, jokes and ROLLERSKATES like a dream. Olivia Newton-John wishes she could be so funny and so graceful. And the supporting cast is filled with marvelous moments, large and small. Dyan McBride costumed by Victoria Livingston-Hall and bewigged by Judy Disbrow looks like a cross between Cher and Heart’s Ann Wilson with some Endora from “Bewitched” thrown in for good measure. She’s Melpomene, the oldest Muse, who cackles and giggles because she’s the bad guy along with her sister Calliope, played by the invaluable Maureen McVerry, who behaves as if she’s channeling one of Carol Burnett’s old addled characters. In fact, this whole show reminded me a little of a finale from the old “Carol Burnett Show” – a lot of singing, dancing and expert comedy thrown together by smart people in a hurry. Cheers to choreographer Jennifer Perry for all her knowing winks to the disco era and to set designer Kelly Tighe and lighting designer Kurt Landisman for drawing a thin, thin line between fun and tacky. A million lights are dancing and there you are, a shooting star…

Comic gold is also dispensed by the two cross-dressing Muses, Mark Farrell as Thalia and Evan Boomer as Terpsicore, and Sharon Rietkerk needs an entire show for her nipple-pinching Muse, Erato. And in that show, there should be a showcase for the vocal talents of Caterine Gloria, who plays Muse Euterpe.

Tom Reardon is a hoot as real estate mogul Danny (who once had a fling with a Muse himself), but he brings down the house as Zeus when the action shifts to Mt. Olympus (and Farrell makes such a good Maggie Smith that the “Downton Abbey” folks should be in touch).

This is such an enjoyable production, filled with broad comedy, charming pop and some wonderful calibrated little details that reward the careful observer (and fans of the movie). If, as this show tells us, the theater is going down the toilet with recycled movie mush like this, I’m happy to take the trip in such colorful company.

[bonus interview]
I talked to Xanadu book writer Douglas Carter Beane last December when the show opened at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Center Repertory Company’s Xanadu continues through June 23 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $40-$47. Call 925-943-7469 or visit www.centerrep.org.

Leave a Reply