ENTERTAINING, BUT WITHOUT THE COMIC SIZZLE
In 2009, Xanadu opened in downtown Chicago that turned out to be one of the delights of the season. It was a silly musical, but hip, satirical, nostalgic, and loaded with energy and visual invention. Fast forward to today and the Drury Lane Theatre’s revival: While there is considerable entertainment value, especially for first-time audiences, it just doesn’t have the same comic sizzle of the 2009 version; those of us with fond memories of the Chicago staging might be disappointed.
The antecedents of Xanadu do not inspire confidence. The musical is based on a 1980 motion picture that is generally counted among the worst films in movie history. The movie gained a perverse reputation as one of those films that is so bad it’s almost endearing. But Douglas Carter Beane elevated the book with lots of droll and unexpected bits of wry dialogue. The plot is built around the nine muses of ancient Greek mythology, all sisters, who were goddesses of various arts. The muse Clio comes to earth from Mount Olympic to help a struggling and discouraged artist named Sonny Malone. The time is 1980 and the place is Venice, California (the storyline is not intended to stand logical scrutiny). Clio, renaming herself Kira, assumes a disguise as a young woman with an Australian accent who travels on roller skates and wears leg warmers—the Australian accent is a sly tribute to the Australian singer Olivia Newton-John, whose participation in the film ruined her Hollywood career.
One plot thread has two of the muses putting a curse on sister Clio to fall in love with a mortal, a no-no among the Olympian gods. That mortal is Sonny, trying to fulfill his dream with Clio’s assistance, of opening a roller disco that would be a haven for all the arts. Then there is scheming millionaire Danny McGuire who fell in love with Clio 35 years earlier and let her get away because he was too busy accumulating a fortune as a property developer.
The unapologetically inane plot is just an excuse for Douglas Carter Beane’s dialogue, a clever blend of satire, sarcasm, in-jokes, and nostalgia. There is gay humor, jive wisecracks from a black muse, lots of listenable pop/rock/disco songs like “Evil Woman” and “Have You Ever Been Mellow,” wry pop cultural references, and an overall hip feeling that validate Xanadu as a pretty sophisticated piece of work beneath its facetiousness.
It may be unfair to compare the 2009 and current productions. The Chicago version played in a small venue that accommodated audience participation not possible in the expansive Drury Lane interior. But the Chicago version demonstrated what a droll hoot Xanadu could be. The Drury Lane revival does entertain, just not as well (plus, this version has an unnecessary intermission that expands a swift 90 minutes of stage time into an inflated two hours). Because of its inanity, Xanadu works best as a shared experience with the audience – this is where The Drury Lane production comes up short: The earlier show broke down the wall between the audience and the performers by seating a couple dozen spectators upstage with the actors humorously mingling with them; performers increased the energy of the show by scooting up and down the aisles; before entering the theater, patrons received small gizmos that lit up when shaken and the audience was encouraged to wave the lights during the show’s final scene. It all contributed to a joyous, what-next atmosphere that made the show such a fun experience.
Still, the Drury Lane cast throws itself into the show with gusto and there are no complaints about the quality of the singing. Chris Critelli as the doofus hunk Danny Malone and Gina Milo as the muse Clio stay in character the whole show. The other seven performers play multiple roles, including two males (Sean Blake and Gary Carlson) cast as a pair of muse sisters. The sisters are rounded out by Stephanie Binetti, Tammy Mader, Christine Sherrill, and Nancy Voigts (not that the acting calls for Chekhovian realism, but Voigts is continuously over the top). Gene Weygandt plays the ruthless Danny McGuire and then dons a fake beard and white robes to play the Zeus in the final scene, where he is joined by a centaur, a one-eyed Cyclops, and Medusa with a snake headdress—all clever visual gags.
The production values are first rate. As usual, Mike Tutaj is front and center with some terrific and witty projections. Kevin Depinet’s set design is an open stage enclosed by Greek columns. Jesse Klug’s lighting design is flashy and creative. Erika Senase is credited as costume coordinator, which presumably means she is responsible for the faux Greek costumes and the modern outfits circa West Coast 1980, and Garth Helm is the sound designer.
Rachel Rockwell is the director and choreographer, which normally guarantees an inventive production. The dancing is certainly enthusiastic but the sass and offbeat comedy need some amping up. There isn’t much chemistry between Critelli and Milo as the young lovers, though this isn’t a show that tries to cut very deep emotionally. The orchestra under Roberta Duchak’s direction certainly does its part with the high decibel but tuneful rock score by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. There are a few nifty special effects, notably stage smoke that was pretty funny except for those unfortunates in the front rows who were engulfed by the billowing clouds.
photos by Brett Beiner
Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace
scheduled to end on October 28, 2012
for tickets, call 630.530.0111 or visit http://www.drurylaneoakbrook.com
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com