Xanadu, the jaw-droppingly awful 1980 film that sank Olivia Newton-John’s movie career yet couldn’t kill roller disco, has been turned into a fast, funny little stage musical. Quite a transformation.
It may not start a new fad for leg warmers, headbands and the thump-thump sounds of the Electric Light Orchestra, but the 90-minute show, which opened Tuesday, July 10, at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre, cheerfully (and with camp to spare)
Adapter Douglas Carter Beane, author of The Little Dog Laughed, has wisely jettisoned the movie’s incomprehensible story line. Still, he has kept the character of Sonny Malone, the creatively stymied Venice, Calif. artist who wants to “make all the arts converge in one place, painting, music, dancing and maybe even athletics.” The obvious forum: a roller disco.
As played by Cheyenne Jackson, who replaced the injured James Carpinello during previews, the dimwitted Sonny is sort of Li’l Abner by way of Beach Blanket Bingo. The sturdy Jackson- sporting the best thighs on Broadway- displays a natural comic timing, not to mention a booming musical- theater voice that is comfortable with the show’s pop score by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar.
The songs are taken directly from the movie and include such hits as Magic and I’m Alive as well as Newton-John’s 1975 success Have You Never Been Mellow. They function sort of like the ABBA numbers inserted in to the wispy plot of Mamma Mia! The numbers don’t exactly advance the tale, but they are there to get nods of recognition and a few laughs from hardcore Xanadu fans while exposing a whole new audience to the music.
At the center of the show is Kira (the Newton-John role), the beautiful Greek muse who decides to help Sonny achieve artistic fulfillment. She’s played here by the delightful Kerry Butler, a veteran of the Broadway casts of Hairspray and the 2003 revival of Little Shop of Horrors.
The sweetly appealing Butler, decked out in flowing blond hair, does double duty. She sings with ease as she speeds around designer David Gallo’s vaguely ancient Grecian setting. The actress knows who to slyly snare a laugh, too, and Beane has given her plenty. There’s even another homage of sorts to Newton-John- this muse comes equipped with an Australian accent.
Yet the evening’s major giggle getters are Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, Kira’s jealous sisters who plot her downfall. Muses are forbidden to fall in love with mortals, so naturally the two concoct a plan to make romance blossom between Kira and Sonny.
Hoffman, another Hairspray alum, literally chews the scenery with hilarious results, and Testa, a brassy lady with an equally brassy voice, knows how to take a song and shake the rafters.
Every once in a while, plot threatens to take over. Part of the story involves a regretful older businessman, played here by Tony Roberts (Gene Kelley in the movie), who owns the building Sonny wants to use as the disco. When young, he didn’t follow his muse and ended up rich - but alone. Will Sonny take that lesson to heart?
Roberts is a game performer and a pro at delivering Beane’s occasionally wry comic comments. The man doesn’t get up on skates, though. That’s let mostly to a small ensemble, particularly in the show’s disco-ball finale- choreographed by Dan Knechteges- and done to the show’s hypnotic title tune.
As Broadway musicals go, Xanadu is small scale. Not much set and what little space there is on stage gets partially taken up by several rows of audience members (shades of Spring Awakening).
But size doesn’t matter. Director Christopher Ashley has invested the musical with a sure sense of what it wants to accomplish. There is a unity of performer and purpose that is enormously ingratiating. Xanadu doesn’t take itself seriously - except in its desire to deliver a good time.
The road to "Xanadu" - the Broadway musical, not the stately pleasure-dome of Coleridge's Kubla Khan - led from the 1980 iconic flop movie starring Olivia Newton-John. And, living up to every expectation, it led to Camp Disaster.
This is the best Broadway musical to feature roller-skating since Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express" - but as it is also the only musical to feature roller-skating since "Starlight Express," that's no great commendation.
The movie, which I have never seen, and doubtless ever will, has its adherents, who are apparently stuck on the fascinations of its sheer atrocity. It was the last film Gene Kelly made, and it was the last large-scale Hollywood musical for more than two decades.
The movie's score did far better than the film itself. The album, which featured Newton-John and the then-hot British band Electric Light Orchestra, was a hit-making platinum and No. 4 on the Billboard charts, while five of the songs were No. 1 singles. Impressive stats.
These hits - music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne - are all naturally incorporated into the stage musical, while at least a couple of other numbers, including "Suddenly" and "Have You Never Been Mellow," are Newton-John standards composed by John Farrar.
For a jukebox musical, the music is certainly not awful, simply nostalgic-generic. If you are of a certain age, you will remember that you had forgotten it and prepare to forget it again.
That, I suppose, is the only goodish news of an absolutely ghastly show.
"Xanadu" has a new book by the talented Douglas Carter Beane, which is arch and camp, a fair example of the kitschy-sink school of writing, with a few decent quips in its shivering quiver.
The story is loosely based on the original screenplay, which itself was even more loosely based on an earlier Rita Hayworth movie, "Down to Earth."
The idea is for the Nine Muses from Mount Parnassus, evoked by a chalk mural on a sidewalk in Santa Monica's Venice Beach, to come alive and assist the author of the mural - Sonny Malone (Cheyenne Jackson) - to achieve his artistic ambition, which is apparently to create a roller disco. It takes all sorts to make art.
The mythological muse who designates herself to help personally is Clio (Kerry Butler), Muse of History, who here calls herself Kira and wears leg warmers and roller skates. It all ends in a mad skating frenzy and mirror balls.
The performers - all having to keep their tongues in their cheeks for so long it must give them earaches - do well, particularly the ultra-charming Jackson.
David Gallo's settings and David Zinn's costumes are cute, while Christopher Ashley's staging is precisely what you would expect from a man who claims to have seen the original movie 148 times.
But in the end, "Xanadu" reminded me of something, and it wasn't "Starlight Express" or even disco. It was "Ishtar."
Can a musical be simultaneously indefensible and irresistible? Why, yes it can. Witness “Xanadu,” the outlandishly enjoyable stage spoof of the outrageously bad movie from 1980 about a painter and his muse who find love at a roller disco in Los Angeles.
The title doesn’t ring a bell? Let me refresh your memory. In “Xanadu” did Newton-John a blooming film career destroy. (Sorry, Mr. Coleridge, I couldn’t resist.)
You probably remember how Olivia Newton-John, the pert, wholesome pop thrush, rocketed to film stardom opposite John Travolta in the Hollywood version of the musical “Grease.” That was in 1978. A mere two years later she roller-skated into oblivion — or at least back to Australia — in a fabulously insipid turkey called “Xanadu,” which didn’t do much for Gene Kelly’s career, either. “Xanadu” also helped kill the “Grease”-born movie musical revival right quick, and the film now resides, I trust, under toxic lockdown at Netflix shipping centers across the country. Watch it at your peril.
Why, you may wonder, would anyone deem it necessary, or even worthwhile, to pay lavish mock homage to a dreadful movie by exhuming it for exhibition onstage? Has Broadway nothing better to do? Has the American musical theater reached such a nadir of inspiration?
Well, yeah. I guess. Whatever. Why pester me with silly questions when there’s so much silly bliss to be had at the Helen Hayes Theater, where the new, improved “Xanadu” opened last night? In any case, Douglas Carter Beane, the impish playwright who has ingeniously adapted the screenplay for the stage (while wearing a Hazmat suit, I hope), trumps such hectoring queries by acknowledging the inanity of the enterprise himself. In his adorably ditzy new book for the musical, Mr. Beane posits 1980, the year “Xanadu” dawned and the year in which the stage version is set, as a cultural turning point. “The muses are in retreat,” muses the god Zeus, played by Tony Roberts, in the musical’s poignant climax. (Kidding!) “Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theater? They’ll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter’s catalog, throw it onstage and call it a show.”
Prophetic words, mighty Zeus, but the creators and performers of “Xanadu” desecrate the theatah with such sharp good humor and magnetic high spirits that you won’t have much time to weep for the cultural blight that too much of Broadway has become. And in fact, there is enough first-rate stage talent rolling around in “Xanadu” to power a season of wholly new, old-school, non-jukebox musicals, if someone would get around to writing a few good ones.
Kerry Butler, as the Greek demi-goddess Clio, who also roams Venice Beach as the Australian mortal Kira, is simply heaven on eight little polyurethane wheels. Or heaven in leg warmers. (Actually she’s both: the skates and woolens are Ms. Newton-John’s memorably ghastly signature look from the movie, though the costume designer David Zinn chose not to drape her in those fetching peasant blouses.)
Ms. Butler is the rare Broadway ingénue who is as funny as she is pretty, and she sings gloriously, too, both in her own tangy Broadway belt and in a devastatingly funny impersonation of Ms. Newton-John’s sweetly sighing soprano. (When Ms. Butler is speaking Australian, she’s actually a ringer for a fresher import from Down Under, Nicole Kidman.) She’s got a lovely line in arabesque on those skates, too! Can Audra McDonald or Kristin Chenoweth do that?
Clio-Kira sheds her inspirational light on a frustrated young would-be artist named Sonny, who spends his time making chalk murals on the sidewalk by the shore. Sonny has chalk for brains, too, and Cheyenne Jackson, the star of “All Shook Up,” the forgettable Elvis jukebox musical, plays him beautifully as a big slab of prime beefcake in tube socks and denim cutoffs. Sonny’s twinkling blue eyes have all the depth of a kiddie pool, his earnest effusions the hilarious aridity of soap-opera acting. (Mr. Jackson is a last-minute and temporary substitute for James Carpinello, star of the forgettable stage ripoff of “Saturday Night Fever,” who was injured in a skating accident and will return to the role when he heals.)
Working from a screenplay consisting of atrocious musical numbers Scotch-taped together with doltish dialogue, Mr. Beane filled the gaps by dreaming up tasty shtick for two of Clio’s wicked sister muses, Calliope and Melpomene, who are played by the stage-devouring comic actresses Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa, respectively. Their theme song, “Evil Woman,” is a highlight, as Ms. Hoffman, in her cat eyeglasses looking like a Roz Chast cartoon sprung to life, scats the shrieky guitar riffs while Ms. Testa bellows the chorus in chesty tones. Together or separately, they are both criminally funny.
Perhaps you remember “Evil Woman,” a hit for the not-quite- immortal ’70s synth-rock outfit Electric Light Orchestra. (A clue: Sing the first syllable twice.) If you were at least tween-age in 1980 and in possession of a radio, you will probably recognize a big chunk of the pop score for “Xanadu,” which includes the sultry ballad “Magic” and the pulsating title tune, written (like “Evil Woman”) by Jeff Lynne, the songwriter for E.L.O.
Back in the day, these were the kind of songs that you’d scoff at in public but crank up and sing along with in the privacy of your Camaro. Now, thanks to our metastasizing cultural affection for the drek of yesteryear (one day theses will be written about that seminal work “Mamma Mia!”), we are free to celebrate them in collective public rituals, as long as everyone agrees to keep tongues in cheeks.
“Xanadu,” which has mostly been directed at roller-derby speed by Christopher Ashley, does have a few dead spots in its brisk 90-minute running time. In addition to Zeus, Mr. Roberts plays the Gene Kelly role from the movie, a magnate named Danny Maguire who bankrolls Sonny’s disco dreams.
Mr. Roberts possesses a polished deadpan style, but Mr. Beane’s inspiration seems to have failed him when it came to minting fresh fun from the subplot involving flashbacks to Danny’s 1940s romance. The stage “Xanadu” can’t really muster much in the way of an extravaganza, either, despite Dan Knechtges’s mercilessly cheesy choreography and the music director Eric Stern’s zesty pop arrangements. (For those attuned to higher musical planes, yes, he is that Eric Stern.) The production is skimpy on both the casting and design fronts.
A few dozen audience members are seated onstage, but this device, used effectively in “Spring Awakening,” seems less an aesthetic choice than an economic one here. With a cast of just 10 and minimal sets (the designer David Gallo seems to have blown much of the budget on disco balls), “Xanadu” uses these onstage viewers as unpaid extras and space-filling, mildly animated scenery.
I can imagine, though, that members of the movie’s cult following, amateur cultural archaeologists of all things ’80s, would thrill to the prospect of being magically spirited into the swirling center of a beloved period artifact.
“This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people!” cracks Ms. Hoffman’s Calliope at one point, and she (or rather Mr. Beane) is only half-kidding. But that acidic epithet could be used to describe far too many more earnest Broadway duds of recent vintage. At least “Xanadu” is in on the joke. The show’s winking attitude toward its own aesthetic abjectness can be summed up thus: If you can’t beat ’em, slap on some roller skates and join ’em.
The five-year span of 1978-83 saw no shortage of cultural crimes, and hammering the fatal nail in the coffin of the already moribund movie musical wasn't the greatest of them. But some of the most misbegotten singing-dancing stinkers ever spat onto a screen arrived during the period, including "The Wiz," "Thank God, It's Friday," "Can't Stop the Music," "Times Square," "Grease 2" and "Staying Alive." Arguably worst of all was "Xanadu," about a muse descended on skates from Mount Olympus to inspire the creation of a roller disco in Venice, Calif. So it seems a feat worthy of Zeus himself that such dreck yields so much enjoyment.
Borrowing from 1947 Rita Hayworth pic "Down to Earth," the 1980 Universal release was an inane fairy tale back then and, despite its supposed camp-classic status, is now as much fun as a root canal.
Combining songs by Electric Light Orchestra founding member Jeff Lynne and pop tunesmith-producer John Farrar, who penned monster hits for Olivia Newton-John, "Xanadu" was built as a showcase for the singer to follow "Grease." But with less infectious material to bolster her, Newton-John displayed what can only be described as vegetable magnetism onscreen. Co-star Michael Beck was almost as inanimate, making the ludicrous dialogue, idiotic plot and bloated, instantly dated production values seem even deadlier.
Fresh off "The Little Dog Laughed," Douglas Carter Beane has taken the unpromising clay of Richard Danus and Marc Rubel's screenplay and molded it not only into an engagingly goofy spoof of the film itself but also a witty takedown of the Broadway creative climate. Sure, the book scenes occasionally stall, but what looked on paper to be one-note sketch fodder turns out to be an unexpectedly sustained and refreshingly unassuming crowd-pleaser.
"I shall take the improbably popular art forms in each moment of time," says demi-goddess Clio, aka Kira (Kerry Butler). "The stage adaptation of the inferior cinematic offering, the musical of the box that is Juke, and I shall use them to remind mankind that there is something greater than wealth or fame, and that is the human experience rendered comprehensible through art."
With a complicitous wink at the audience that's never overplayed, the creatives and cast at every turn cheekily point up the irony of charging Rialto prices for recycled trash. The less-than-lavish physical aspects of Christopher Ashley's gleefully low-rent production further the point, saving most of the budget for the mirror balls that cascade from the flies during the show's eponymous closing number. The constraints of double casting, of a limited ensemble (the nine sister muses are downsized to seven) and craptastic effects are part of the joke rather than a shortcoming audiences are likely to mind.
Beane infuses all this with wry riffs on art and creativity, on bad movies and vacuous stage musicals. He lampoons the wretchedness of '80s pop culture far more cleverly and with a lighter touch than the belabored visual gags of "The Wedding Singer," which took a literal approach to adapting its screen source where this show takes a playfully deconstructionist one.
"This is like children's theater for 40-year-old gay people," deadpans Jackie Hoffman's Calliope, who vies hilariously for head ham honors with Mary Testa's scheming Melpomene. It's hard to dismiss any show for being narrowly targeted when it's so upfront about acknowledging who it's pitched at. But while Calliope may be correct in identifying the core audience, the ongoing retro fascination of all things '80s should extend the appeal.
Ditto the music. Augmenting songs from the film with additional ELO hits and another of Newton-John's, Lynne and Farrar's string- and synth-drenched tunes -- glamrock-meets-disco-meets-faux classical -- are the epitome of pop-rock cheese of that era but nevertheless insidiously catchy. What's more, Beane has stitched them into an expanded narrative context with more resourcefulness than the average musical assembly artist, finding neat fits for numbers such as "Evil Woman," "Strange Magic" and "Have You Never Been Mellow?" -- a disarming question when put to a wrathful Zeus.
The show mines Greek mythology more diligently than the movie, whimsically mixing up the characters' journey from Earth to Mount Olympus with 1981 Ray Harryhausen schlock "Clash of the Titans." How many contemporary auds will get the cross-referencing is uncertain, but it's funny nonetheless, with droll appearances from Medusa, Pegasus, Cyclops and a Centaur thrown in. We're even given a mythological explanation for the protective properties of leg-warmers.
There was some disappointment in the Broadway community when Jane Krakowski, who had performed the lead in workshops, opted not to do the show. But it's hard to imagine anyone more irresistible than Butler in the role of Kyra, the daughter of Zeus who risks her immortality for human love and the chance to create rather than just inspire.
Not only is Butler the most supremely confident woman on wheels since Raquel Welch in "Kansas City Bomber," but her delicious parodying of Newton-John's breathy vocals makes her numbers a hoot. The actress showed priceless comic timing as the original Penny in Broadway's "Hairspray" but was ill-served by the flaccid "Little Shop of Horrors" revival. Here, she has charm to spare, whizzing around in a gossamer pink number with matching leg-warmers, coupling Newton-John's vanilla wholesomeness with a sly touch of the trampy and sporting a comically exaggerated Australian drawl.
Stepping in for co-star James Carpinello, who broke a foot during previews, Cheyenne Jackson played Sonny opposite Krakowski in the workshop. That adds to his ease in the role of the directionless pavement artist touched by drive, creativity and love when other-worldly Kyra steps out of his mural depicting "Ancient Greek arty chicks." His buff arms and waxed legs on display in tank top and cutoffs throughout, Jackson plays the soulful dumb hunk to endearing perfection.
Tony Roberts seems slightly uncomfortable in the thankless role of Danny Maguire (originated onscreen by Gene Kelly), the businessman given a chance to make good after messing up his first brush with a muse 35 years earlier. Roberts is a good sport, however, clearly having a better time later on when he channels the plummy declamatory tones of Laurence Olivier as Zeus.
Director Ashley guides the small cast to connect with the show's blissed-out, self-reflexive spirit while keeping them just guileless enough to be part of the spectacle rather than its smug superiors. Among the multitasking ensemble members, Andre Ward cranks up the sassy black attitude as dancing mister-sister muse Terpsicore, and Curtis Holbrook's impressive tap skills get a vigorous workout in "Whenever You're Away From Me."
Dan Knechtges' jokey choreography delves tirelessly into the repertoire of '80s dance kitsch, with lots of hand action allowing Butler to acknowledge Newton-John's, let's call them limited, moves. Nothing here can equal the jaw-dropping assault of numbers from the movie like the '40s/'80s musical duel "Dancin'," in which an Andrews Sisters-style trio battle it out with Lycra-clad headbangers; or the shopping-spree horror show of "All Over the World." But Ashley conveys the general idea with economy and wicked humor.
Following the trend of "Spring Awakening" and "Inherit the Wind" last season, the main feature of David Gallo's design is Grecian bleachers for reduced-price onstage seating, allowing the audience to get in on the action by waving glowsticks during the title song.
Back in the days when Off Broadway was a viable avenue for offbeat shows with cult appeal, "Xanadu" would have been a sure bet. In a mainstem house at $111 a pop, the verdict is not yet in on its ability to turn strong word of mouth into a sustained audience. Whatever the show's future, Beane and the young producing team of Broadway neophytes have made it a guilt-free pleasure to visit "a place where nobody dared to go."