The love that we came to know
They call it Xanadu.”
For more than 20 years, that lyric was oh-so-true for cult lovers of the 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie musical mess. I was young enough and gay enough to embrace the film wholeheartedly when it came out, while the rest of the world retched at its over-the-top corniness.
Fast-forward to the new millennium and playwright Douglas Carter Beane and director Christopher Ashley have reincarnated what was most fabulous about the mega-flop and threw in a healthy dose of parody. Voila! Xanadu lives again, only this time it’s loved and respected. And now, La Jolla Playhouse has captured the magic of the Broadway hit as it makes its West Coast premiere (now through December 31).
Having seen Ashley’s Broadway version starring Cheyenne Jackson and Kerry Butler, I have to say that recreating it for the national tour may be like trying to capture lightning in a bottle. All of the elements are there and the show is a campy delight, but what was missing in La Jolla, sad to say, was the audience.
Elizabeth Stanley, who was so marvelous in the underappreciated Cry-Baby, strikes a more classic comic siren note than Butler, who went for full-on Olivia Newton-John. Stanley is a master comedienne, while Butler magically channeled her inspiration. Max von Essen is the opposite physical type to the impossibly gorgeous (and built) Jackson, playing Sonny Malone more like a spaced-out dreamer, but he is impossibly adorable nonetheless.
The story of Xanadu remains the same: the Grecian muse Clio comes to Earth to help an artist attain his highest achievement — a roller disco named Xanadu. Hey, it’s 1980, nothing much was happening artistically! In this version, however, her evil sister muses, Melpomene and Calliope, set the plot in motion by casting a curse upon Clio to fall in love with a mortal, thereby sealing her fate. Sharon Wilkins brings a full-bodied brazenness to the role originated by Mary Testa, while the hilarious Joanna Glushak finds her own variations in the sublime Jackie Hoffman’s role, even though she’s wearing a Jackie Hoffman wig and glasses.
The biggest improvement is Larry Marshall as Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly in the film, Tony Roberts on Broadway), who, despite some line difficulties, imbued his character with a lot more personality and heart than the seemingly at-sea Roberts. Danny is the man Clio left in the ’40s when he chose money over art, and Marshall makes you feel for him.
The other muses are sexy and hilarious, especially in the trip to Mt. Olympus. Perhaps due to space constraints, the wild free-for-all roller-skating that typified Broadway’s Xanadu has been scaled back. The night I attended, the understudy Brett Stang played the Featured Skater, but shouldn’t really have bothered.
Watching Xanadu this time, I realized what a major part the audience plays. The cast seemed to have to work overtime to get the jokes out there to a house that didn’t want to play along and have fun. However, the infectious spirit of the cast won them over and by the end, the audience was on their feet clapping and dancing in their rows. La Jolla is at least as magical a place as the fabled Xanadu, so catch this comic gem when it comes your way.
Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.