XANADU Ends SpeakEasy Stage Season on a Roll
Book by Douglas Carter Beane; music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar; based upon the Universal Pictures film with a screenplay by Richard Darius and Marc Rubel; directed by Paul Daigneault; music direction by Nicholas James Connell; choreography by David Connolly; scenic design by Crystal Tiala; costume design by Gail Astrid Buckley; lighting design by Karen Perlow; sound design by Aaron K. Mack
Cast in order of appearance:
Sonny, Ryan Overberg; Thalia/Siren/Young Danny/’80s Singer/Cyclops, Cheo Bourne; Euterpe/Siren/’40s Singer/Thetis, Kami Rushell Smith; Erato/Siren/’40s Singer/Eros/Hera, Val Sullivan; Melpomene/Medusa, Shana Dirik; Callipe/Aphrodite, Kathy St. George; Terpsicore/Siren/’80s Singer/Hermes/Centaur, Patrick Connolly; Clio/Kira, McCaela Donovan; Danny Maguire/Zeus, Robert Saoud
There really is no good reason on Heaven or Earth for turning one of the truly worst movies of all time into a Broadway musical. Yet here we have it: XANADU, Douglas Carter Beane’s deliberately campy adaptation of the unintentionally campy 1980 film about life and love at a roller disco. Break out the leg warmers and mirror ball, people. It’s time to celebrate the death of art inAmerica!
That silly sentiment, plus the self-skewering one-liner, “This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people,” are the two most obvious running jokes that fuel Beane’s tongue-in-cheek version of XANADU. Almost too precious for its own good, however, the musical, like its much parodied source material, turns out to be as thin as the air atop Mount Everest – or Mount Olympus, in this case, since the plot centers around ancient and immortal Greek muses who come back to Earth to inspire Sonny, a muscle-bound Venice Beach sidewalk artist, to follow his true bliss – and open the ultimate shimmering 1980s oasis, a neon bright roller disco.
Along the way, Sonny and his chief muse, Clio (disguised as an Australian mortal named Kira in an homage to the film’s pop star Olivia Newton-John), meet cute and fall in love. Soon she introduces Sonny to Danny, the jaded owner of an abandoned movie theater who needs something other than money to revitalize him. Before you can say, “G’day, mate,” Sonny and Danny are partners, and everyone’s dreams come true.
At 90 minutes without intermission, XANADU could feel about 70 minutes too long. But thanks to the marvelous cast in this breezy SpeakEasy Stage production, you almost regret the last days of disco. They infuse songs from the memorable Electric Light Orchestra movie soundtrack – including “I’m Alive, “Magic,” and “Suddenly,” whose meanings Beane has shrewdly twisted – with great wit and panache. They also deliver other cleverly interpolated songs of the era – “Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic” and “Have You Never Been Mellow?” – with just the right mixture of winking sarcasm and musical sincerity.
And then there are the roller skates. McCaela Donovan as the ethereal Clio/Kira has the Herculean task of singing, acting, dancing, and romancing for most of the show’s running time on wheels – and often backwards. Ginger Rogers had it easy compared to this! Gracefully, almost effortlessly, Donovan glides across the SpeakEasy Stage, all the while alternating between her lofty Olympian speech pattern as Clio and her absolutely pitch-perfect Australian Newton-John impersonation as Kira. It’s Donovan’s task to keep the show rolling, and she does it exquisitely.
As Sonny, her brawny but not too bright work in progress, Ryan Overberg is the ideal deadpan foil. His sincere naïveté captures hearts while his buff (and barely clad) bod captures stares. He is especially funny when, during “Suddenly,” he executes a hilarious sight gag timed perfectly to the lyric “the wheels are in motion.” The beauty of the joke is that he underplays it naturally and seems totally unaware of its absurdity.
The greatest laughs, however, come from the dynamic duo of tomfoolery, Shana Dirik and Kathy St. George as the menacing muses Melpomene and Calliope. The unappreciated older sisters of the bright and beautiful Clio, they scheme and scamper deliciously, baiting the audience and bickering with each other as they plan their golden-haired sister’s downfall. Dirik andSt.George Literally chew the scenery at one point. They breathe inspired life into vaudeville-style jokes that, if not played with shameless self-awareness, could fall flat as a spent balloon.
In the role of Danny, played famously (or infamously?) on film by GeneKelly, Robert Saoud is the straight man buffeted about by everyone else’s spiriTed Shenanigans. At first forlorn, then bemused, and eventually ignited by the possibility of recapturing his idealism, Saoud is responsible for conveying the “serious” moral of the story, such as it is. No doubt he’s glad he doesn’t have to skate the wayKellydid in the movie. For the few moments when his is on wheels during the “Xanadu” finale, let’s just say he’s not in his element.
Choreographer David Connolly and director Paul Daigneault have done a nice job of keeping the actors moving fluidly in the SpeakEasy black box, reconfigured for this production to mimic a roller rink – with the stage at floor level, the band on one side and raked seating on the other three. Said four-piece band consisting of two keyboards, a guitar and drums delivers an authentic driving disco beat and tight, rich melodies inflected with colorful, humorous flourishes.
No one will ever accuse XANADU of being one of the all-time great Broadway musicals. What Douglas Carter Beane and the SpeakEasy Stage Company have managed to do, however, is turn one of the all-time great movie musical disasters into a whip-cracking good time.
PHOTOS by Craig Bailey: McCaela Donovan as Clio/Kira, Ryan Overberg as Sonny; McCaela Donovan and cast of XANADU; McCaela Donovan and Ryan Overberg; Shanna Dirik as Melpomene and Kathy St. George as Calliope