Xanadu the right thing

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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.

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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.

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.

Theater review: `Cabaret’

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Nick Gabriel is the Emcee and Kate Del Castillo is Sally Bowled in the Center Repertory Company production of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret. Photos by kevinberne.com

Decadence, pineapples, Nazis and prairie oysters: Life is a `Cabaret’ and then some
Think about Broadway in 1966 when Cabaret opened at the Broadhurst Theatre. Also opening that year were Sweet Charity and Mame, which ran alongside such established hits as Hello, Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof. With its examination of pre-World War II Germany at its most decadent and out of control, Cabaret was taking mainstream musical theater in a new direction, one marked by elements of old-school musicals, bold forays into politics and cynicism and lusty, scantily clad sexuality.

It’s no wonder that Cabaret has turned out to be such a war horse. With a sturdy foundation in Christopher Isherwood’s autobiographical Berlin Stories, which became the basis of John van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera, the musical ran for more than a thousand performances on Broadway and has been steadily revived on stages at all levels of the theater food chain since then. Bob Fosse’s Oscar-winning 1972 movie, which preserved the sex, politics and some of the music of the original, proved that this was a story ripe for reinterpretation.

In 1998, Sam Mendes and Rob Marshall proved that Cabaret’s durability could withstand an aggressive, hyper-sexual re-mount (if you’ll pardon the expression), and that revival ran for 2,377 performances, more than twice as long as the original. A whole new generation happily dove into the world of the Kit Kat club, and since then, the show has had the cachet of a recently minted hit.

Last year around this time, the SF Playhouse mounted a stirring version of Cabaret in its tiny San Francisco theater, and this summer, it’s Walnut Creek’s Center Repertory Company inviting us to put down the knitting, the book and the broom and come to the cabaret, old chum.

Director Mindy Cooper, choreographer Joe Bowerman and musical director Brandon Adams don’t drastically re-invent the musical, but they make smart choices – picking the best of previous versions and incorporating some original ideas – to create an exhilarating show with sizzle aplenty.

Nick Gabriel as the Emcee captures the essence of this production by taking the sweet playfulness of Joel Grey, originator of the role, with the more beguilingly perverse aspects of Alan Cumming’s version in the most recent Broadway revival.

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Kate Del Castillo as songstress Sally Bowles offers a refreshingly bold take on a familiar character. Instead of a wounded, yet resilient, hedonist, Del Castillo gives us a bitter beauty. Sure, this Sally has her share of wounds, but she’s angry, and that comes through loud and clear in her in-your-face version of “Mein Herr” and her full-throttle rendition of the title song. Even her “Maybe This Time,” sung as she contemplates an abortion, has a forcefulness that shields a broken heart with ferocity.

Unlike the movie, the show has two couples at its center. We get Sally and American writer Cliff (Jeffrey Draper, right, with John-Elliott Kirk) alongside landlady Fraulein Schneider (Milissa Carey) and her paramour/tenant, Herr Schultz (Jarion Monroe), a Jewish fruit vendor. What’s nice about Cooper’s production is that she gives equal dramatic weight to both couples. While Cliff and Sally get the showier dramatics, the older couple gets the show’s most touching songs: “It Couldn’t Please Me More” and “Married.”

Carey, who also juices up her solos “So What?” and “What Would You Do?” and Monroe have effective chemistry, as do Del Castillo and Draper, who mercifully gives Cliff a pulse and makes him more guileless than innocent or naïve.

While certain ensemble numbers (“Don’t Tell Mama,” “Money,” “Two Ladies”) are fun and frothy, others, most notably Gabriel’s “If You Could See Her” and the full-company reprise of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” have the unsettling edge that makes Cabaret much more of a drama than a musical comedy.

Robert Broadfoot’s set design is all about suitcases. Lit by Kurt Landisman, they hang in rows from the back of the stage (where the superb 10-piece orchestra, which includes some cast members, plays from a lofty perch). On-stage trunks open to become passenger car benches or fruit stands. The effect initially seems overpowering and telegraphs the end of the play (indeed the end of decadent Weimar Republic Germany in the face of Nazi rule), but when the end finally comes, even more suitcases, along with effective use of chain-link fencing, packs a surprising wallop.


Center Rep’s Cabaret continues through June 27 at the Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek. Tickets are $37-$41. Call 925-943-7469 or visit www.centerrep.org for information.