Updated: Aug 10, 2022
Escape to Xanadu, Where Time Stops and the Magic Never Ends
Question. Can a musical be simultaneously indefensible and irresistible? Can a show have 90 minutes of souped-up silliness, broad comedy and strange magic and still be labeled a “delightfully inspired and refreshingly unassuming crowd-pleaser?” Why, yes it can.
Witness “Xanadu,” the outlandishly enjoyable “heaven on wheels in leg warmers” stage spoof of the Universal Pictures film by the same name. Brightly reinvented by the wickedly funny satirist Douglas Carter Beane (who wrote the whimsical "Little Dog Laughed") as a funny mashup of Greek mythology and campy disco-era references, “Xanadu” became a Broadway hit in 2007, and featured more than a dozen songs by John Farrar and Jeff Lynne, of Electric Light Orchestra fame, that included pop favorites like the title number, “Evil Woman,” “All Over the World” and “Have You Never Been Mellow?” (converted to a stoner classic here).
Now, this hilariously decadent treat (with music direction by Ricky Pope and direction and choreography by Paula Hammons Sloan, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”) is currently onstage at the historic Laguna Playhouse, celebrating their 100th year of theatre, in a vast array of glitz, talent and song, with performances scheduled through August 21st.
Based on the cult film musical starring Olivia Newton-John and screen legend Gene Kelly, this stage version and storyline is similar at first, but moves quickly on a different path, filled with side-splitting gelastic jokes, disco balls, glow sticks, and hit songs, and featuring the sky and thunder god himself, Zeus, chief of the gods, along with a full court of divine offspring, Muses, demigods and mythological creatures. Think "Starlight Express" in togas.
The time is 1980. Mount St. Helen has erupted; the winter Olympics are in full swing in New York; “The Empire Strikes Back” is premiering at the box office. Over in Venice Beach, California, a cool salty ocean breeze fills your lungs.
As I twist my neon glow stick bracelet around my wrist and take in the set, designed by Chris Strangfeld, my foot begins bouncing up and down in anticipation even before it begins. A large lit-up Xanadu sign hangs midway between looming, almost translucent Athenian marbled columns and a framework of flowing curtains saturated with color, as projections cast a realistic marble floor. The audience is focused on the center piece — that chalked colorful drawing of nine distinct sisters — all Muses, all demigods, when "Suddenly!" it comes to life, a la Mary Poppins chalk drawings, in an instant right before your eyes.
A quintessential 80’s piece, everything about this production is amped up. Lighting Designer Clifford Spulock does not disappoint, with the purples and greens and pastels blazing vivid colors throughout the show, and disco balls that refract light into a million revolving spheres. Retro costumes directly from the tour brings back the 80’s onstage, putting together a sea of sparkles and sheens, headbands, satin shorts, roller blades and leg warmers. As the majority of the characters are Greek Goddesses, sparkly, gauzy dresses also sweep the stage, and bouncy blonde curls sit atop shoulders that have been liberally painted with glitter and ribbons. The effect is remarkable, and coupled with their airy choreography, I would not have been surprised if the goddesses had risen into the air and taken flight.
It was initially Robert Ahrens who was inspired to reinvent “Xanadu” after watching an unauthorized 2001 stage production of the film. Then an assistant at Paramount Pictures, he got the rights to “Xanadu” and its songs, by the Electric Light Orchestra, through cold-calling. According to Mr. Ahrens (who went on to produce “Evita” and “Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons” on Broadway), he then “stalked” Mr. Beane, his choice for librettist, until the playwright’s initial no turned to a yes, ending up at Broadway’s old pleasure dome, the Helen Hayes Theater, where “Xanadu” initially ran for over 500 performances, winning multiple Drama Desk Awards along with four Tony Award nominations.
Opening with "I'm Alive," the Muse Sisters declare their mission, and focus on Sonny's magnificent dream of opening a roller disco replete with (what else?) disco balls and "hustle" beats.
The show stars a bedazzling cast including the two leads — a wonderfully kooky Dorian Quinn playing lovably dense Sonny Malone, and Kristen Daniels as Kira, a vision in leg warmers and windswept hair, who arrives through time's trap door to bring art and creativity back to the 80s to help this hunky painter find his groove, discover true love and build the world's first roller disco (not necessarily in that order).
For those outside the “Xanadu” story loop, it spins out a dizzy romance like this: When Sonny Malone despairs over his latest wall mural, Clio, the youngest of the Muses on Mt. Olympus, springs into action, backed by six of her sisters (Daniella Castoria as Erato, Erika Harper as Euterpe, Ellery Smith as Polyhymnia, AJ Love as Thalia, Alec Mittenthal as Terpsichore, and Patrick Murray as Urania).
The remaining two sisters — Melpomene (Judy Mina-Ballard), and her constant sidekick, Calliope (Michelle Bendetti), are jealous that their father, Zeus (a very “high” and funky Jonathan Van Dyke) promised the mysterious “Xanadu” to Clio, although no one is quite sure what that means. Nevertheless, they conspire to hex her by having her fall in love with the mortal, Sonny — a major taboo, along with the prohibition to actually create, rather than just inspire a work of art — and thereby force Zeus to punish her.
Before all that, however, inspiration strikes Sonny as he spots a long-abandoned theater in a neighborhood of Los Angeles and he envisions it being transformed into a roller disco and multimedia arts center. Clio (in the guise of an Aussie-accented, roller-skating-leg warmer-wearing Kira in a pretty pink sundress), urges him to meet with its owner, real estate mogul Danny Maguire (also played expertly by the aforementioned Mr. Van Dyke), who was a big band musician in his youth and had his own taste of heaven when Kira (then “Kitty”) had visited him as a glamorous jitterbugging showgirl in the ‘40s, and urged him to open that same amphitheater as “Xanadu.” A flashback to those days convinces him to strike a deal with Sonny.
Man, that Clio gets around every generation or so. So, he has a theater just sitting there for the taking, provided Sonny and Kira can spruce it up overnight before the demolition team takes over. But the fly in the Olympian ointment is of course those cackling, vamping, evil Muse Sisters, Melpomene and Calliope — passed over by Father Zeus in favor of the young blonde thing — who are planning their revenge, and you can be sure they're not going to help Clio's cause.
“The penalty for loving a mortal is eternal damnation in the netherworld,” declares the god Hermes (Patrick Murray again, later delivering one of the funniest lines of the night). Now terrified, Kira tries to pull herself away from Sonny by admitting she is not human and that she must leave him, but Sonny is cast into despair. “But I need you here, just to be around,” he protests.
Clio (we’re back to Clio now) and Sonny then appeal in the name of love to Zeus, who spares her but orders that she must sacrifice her immortality. “Clio may live,” Zeus proclaims, prompting a wave of celebration among the gods (and the audience). Clio and Sonny then return to the bliss of their Venice, California utopia to live out their days together.
Ms. Daniels, an enchanting, wildly talented actress, singer, dancer and skater as well as an effortless comedian, shifts stylishly from jazz to pop in a heartbeat, and even does a little scat singing. She is both a model of high-energy and natural understatement, and has a vocal instrument that really should be patented. Many of her songs were indistinguishable from the original. When she mounts her steed, Pegasus, and sings "Suspended in Time," one of my favorites, the audience couldn't help but turn on the waterworks.
Her co-lead, Dorian Quinn, well deserves extended ovations for his absolutely marvelous acting ability (seemingly all natural), combined with a vocal range that boggles the mind. I cannot believe he has not been snatched up yet for some Broadway musical. As the nasty sisters, Ms. Bendetti (Calliope) and Ms. Mina-Ballard (Melpomene) are both rip-roarious, especially performing their full-throated malice in “Evil Woman.” And Mr. Van Dyke, who plays both Danny and Zeus, has surprised me yet again. Having seen Mr. Van Dyke in multiple roles over the years, I was not aware of the full extent of his comedic talents. I am now. A born leader and a man of true wit, Mr. Van Dyke also possesses a seriously impressive baritone.
But the backbone of the production is the ensemble. Not only do these performers add vibrancy to each scene individually, but their ensemble work is wonderfully energetic and synergistic, bringing a fresh terpsichorean unity to their choreography. On the big production number, “Dancin’,” for instance, a parody of the Andrews Sisters, their performance is so sweet and slick that it could almost be homage rather than satire. Credit for this has to go to Director/Choreographer Paula Hammons Sloan and Music Director Ricky Pope.
Along the way there are also other instantly smile-inducing hits by E.L.O.'s Jeff Lynne, “All Over the World,” “The Fall,” “I’m Alive,” ”Don’t Walk Away,” “Strange Magic” and the title song, and by Aussie John Farrar, “Magic,” “Suddenly,” “Whenever You’re Away from Me” and “Fool,” all topped off with a karaoke finale that should put a smile on the most severe brow.
Special Note: The company of Xanadu has reportedly dedicated the remaining balance of performances at Laguna Playhouse to megastar Olivia Newton-John, who saddly passed away yesterday morning from a long battle with metastatic breast cancer. RIP Olivia!
STARRING: DORIAN QUINN • KRISTEN DANIELS • MICHELLE BENDETTI • JONATHAN VAN DYKE DANIELLA CASTORIA • ERIKA HARPER • AJ LOVE • JUDY MINA-BALLARD • ALEC MITTENTHAL • PATRICK MURRAY • ELLERY SMITH
LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE, CELEBRATING 100 YEARS, PRESENTS – “XANADU” BASED ON THE UNIVERSAL PICTURES FILM; BOOK • DOUGLAS CARTER BEANE; MUSIC & LYRICS • JEFF LYNNE & JOHN FARRAR; DIRECTOR/CHOREOGRAPHER • PAULA HAMMONS SLOAN; MUSIC DIRECTOR • RICKY POPE; SCENIC DESIGNER • CHRIS STRANGFELD; LIGHTING DESIGNER • CLIFFORD SPULOCK; SOUND DESIGNER • IAN SCOT; PRODUCTION SUPERVISOR • GAIL ANDERSON; PRODUCTION STAGE MANAGER • LILA MULLINS; EXECUTIVE PRODUCING DIRECTOR • ELLEN RICHARD
XANADU will run through Sunday, August 21st at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive in Laguna Beach; Running time approximately 90 minutes plus one intermission; Performances will be Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30pm; Saturdays at 2pm & 7:30pm; Sundays at 1:00pm & 5:30pm. There will be added performances on Tuesday, August 9th at 7:30pm & Thursday, August 18th at 2:00pm. There will be no performance on Wednesday, August 17th at 7:30pm. Tickets range from $55 - $95 and can be purchased online at www.lagunaplayhouse.com or by calling (949) 497-ARTS (2787).
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Matthew Saville