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BWW Reviews: Strine, Skating and Screeching - A Hilarious XANADU at Toby's Baltimore

When they subtitled the 2007-08 production of Xanadu "Broadway's Surprise Hit Musical" they were on the mark.  It was indeed a hit, and this was not just a surprise, it was a shocker, because its source material, the 1980 film musical Xanadu, was anything but a hit.  Blame the movie's leaden screenplay, by Richard Danus and Marc Rubel, which took one wildly unserious subject (the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology), wedded it to another (roller disco), and then tried to sell this risible combination as the stuff of feel-good inspiration.  If only you believe in yourself, the screenplay intimated, you could achieve the acme of your artistic dreams: running a roller-disco nightclub.  Of course there was plenty of pep and would-be comedy in the movie, but its heart was in deadly earnest, a mistake of tone that no movie about these subjects could survive.

This was a shame, because there were actually a lot of good things in the movie, foremost among them a songbook of great early-Reagan-era pop sung by Olivia Newton-John and Electric Light Orchestra (I'M ALIVE, XANADU, MAGIC, and SUDDENLY among the hits) and quite decent performances by Newton-John and Gene Kelly (in his last role).  The songs kept selling for a year, long after the film had gone to its celluloid grave.  Still, the world was never full of fans clamoring for the movie to be staged, as there might have been for, say, John Waters' Hairspray.

This made all the more remarkable the inspiration of contemporary playwright Douglas Carter Beane, who figured out how to recast the material, namely as a parody of the preoccupations and tropes of the Big Hair era.  He kept some of the plot elements: the Muse Clio still comes to Earth in the form of a skater named Kira to inspire a Sonny, a young artist, and tweak the memory of Danny, a businessman who had been in love with Clio thirty years before in another guise.  And Beane kept the entire songbook, adding into the bargain two more songs from the ELO catalogue (EVIL WOMAN and STRANGE MAGIC) and one from the Newton-John repertoire (HAVE YOU NEVER BEEN MELLOW).  Almost everything else was new, especially the tone, which was completely parodic.

Thus, for example, the character of Clio/Kira, portrayed by Newton-John in the original, becomes a loving parody of Newton-John, sporting a thick Australian accent, and an exaggerated tendency to Newton-John's occasional nasal screech.  (If you go back and check, of course, you'll find that Newton-John's actual speech and singing is almost devoid of the Strine accent, not surprising as she is British-born, although she did much of her growing up in the Antipodes.)   And the singing is also altered to call attention to the mannerisms creeping into pop balladry of that era, which came at the moment when melisma was setting down roots in pop, together with tight harmony marked by lots of sudden pauses for emphasis.  The Mount Olympus hinted at in the original becomes a full Ray Harryhausen Clash of the Titans takeoff.  In short, everything is pumped up to the point of ridiculousness, except for the endless over-the-top grand finale skate-dance number in the movie, which was so pumped-up to begin with that the proper course of action (thankfully followed here) was to take it down several notches.  It works wonderfully well.

In fact, even setting aside the parody, the music comes across better onstage because, to be blunt, ELO, which sang most of the songs, wasn't the best vehicle for delivering Jeff Lynne's tunes - even if it was Lynne's band.  Spread among a cast, and with female voices substituting for Lynne's weird falsetto, the harmonies just sound better.

This refocused vision of Xanadu as the occasion to laugh at all things 1980 is delightfully embodied in the new revival at Toby's Baltimore.  The book and the songs may be surefire, but they require comic verve, lung power guided by that verve and, oh yes, roller skating skills, among other things.  In particular, the show needs the right Kira.  In the movie, there are three principal roles.  In the show, Kira has to predominate.

Fortunately, Toby's has the right Kira in Heather Marie Beck, who looks perfectly capable of reprising the movie role seriously, but rises to the much tougher job of clowning rather than just being pretty and inspirational, delivering line readings that capitalize on the Australian great vowel shift by making words that end in vowel sounds last forever and waver indefinitely between sounds, singing cadences that screech a little rather than sounding sweet all the time, and mocking the character and the character's mindless gospel of uplift - all without breaking character.  In her game willingness to clown rather than just be pretty and sound lovely, she reminds me a bit of Cameron Diaz.  I will long treasure the memory of her staggering along, one skate on and one skate off, as she doggedly makes her escape from a too-importunate Sonny.  Beck may know, and we may know, that the character looks ridiculous, but the character doesn't know; that's real comedy.

This is not to fault the other members of the cast, especially David Bosley-Reynolds who doubles as Danny (the old Gene Kelly role) and as Zeus.  Danny was obviously written in the movie as a vehicle to give Gene Kelly a chance to dance and show off his casual old-school elegance.  Bosley-Reynolds is of course no Gene Kelly (who is?), but he brings a New York-accented Rat Pack-ish authority to a thinly-written role and to his big duet with Kira (WHENEVER YOU'RE AWAY FROM ME).

The other major role, Sonny, is a problem.  Played in the movie by a somewhat obscure Michael Beck, he was a cipher, but at least he had the big hair, and, all-in-all, his portrayal, cipher-dom and all, was ripe for parody.  Brought to Broadway by Cheyenne Jackson, he was a numbskull with short hair.  Toby's follows the numbskull-with-short-hair routine, for reasons I cannot fathom.  There's nothing demonstrably 80s about his portrayal.  Greg Twomey apparently does what's asked of him and plays dumb, but I think it would have been a smarter call to make him less explicable, in keeping with all the incoherent characterizations that were so much a part of the world of 80s screenplays.  (If you think I'm lying, call Billy Jack to mind.  Or The Mechanic.)

With a show like this, the reviewer must say a word about the set.  Whenever you've got performers risking life and limb on skates, it's hard to imagine a set that's too big (or a worker's compensation policy too comprehensive).  The stage at Toby's is not exactly small, but I must say I would have liked to have seen it larger, particularly when characters came down what might have been a 35-degree ramp directly toward the front of the stage.  Designer David A. Hopkins and his crew must have known what they were doing, because I witnessed no pratfalls or defenestrations.  Apart from that, the setting has to evoke the glam and glitter of the disco at the end, and some illuminated columns and lighting effects do that nicely.

Daniel McDonald's direction keeps matters moving right along, maybe a little too briskly at times.  But a grin seldom left my face or those of most of the people around me, so he was certainly doing what he needed to do.  (Except perhaps from the perspective of one audience member who was constantly checking her e-mail nearby, and who seemed to be scowling the whole time - where are the ushers when you really need them, to put her and us out of her misery?)  And a tip of the hat as well to choreographer Laurie Newton.

So this is the show to see if you remember 1980 and want to reminisce with amusement, and if you missed 1980 (as I suspect most of the cast did) and want to find out what all the hoopla was about.  You'll have a great time.

Xanadu, Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Music & Lyrics by Jeff Lynne & John Farrar, directed by Daniel McDonald, through August 28, Toby's Baltimore Dinner Theatre, The Best Western Hotel & Conference Center, 5625 O'Donnell Street, Baltimore, MD 21224., 410-649-1660.  Tickets $49.50 - $55.00.  Doors open for dinner two hours before performance.



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