Updated: Oct 26
Kira: "Sonny please stop talking. It hurts..."
Some musicals challenge the audience with deep intellectual discourse, moral dilemmas affecting society, or characters with significant psychological issues.
“Xanadu” is not one of those shows.
Instead, this light, fun, and humorous musical (book by Tony Award winning Douglas Carter Beane; “R&H’s Cinderella,” “Sister Act”) makes parody of the cheesy 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly as well as the film “Clash of the Titans," as Vanguard University's Lyceum Theatre mounts a first-class production of this piece, featuring adroit direction and strong performances.
The surprising part of this musical is that it’s way better than its original source material, unlike many of the other stage versions of eighties movies, which I will respectfully decline to name. Gone, though, are most hints of the pretentious historical allusions and grander cosmic significance that made the movie such an unintentional hoot. In their place are any number of jokes about the ridiculousness of the culture of the 1980s (leg warmers occupy a crucial plot point), the idiocy of the film, and, yes they said it...the pointlessness of musical theatre. Lord Lloyd-Webber, for example, receives a major name check.
”I would like to open a roller disco!” declares Elijah Munck’s Sonny (who played Sky last year in Lyceum Theatre’s “Mamma Mia!”), whose late-’70s-era attire of T-shirt, cutoffs, and high socks clashes deliriously and deliberately with the play’s set, which evokes ancient Greece. ”How timeless!” replies Leilani Cranford’s Kira, a vision in a pink party dress and roller skates. Her words prompt a knowing howl of laughter from the audience (though this crowd of teen to thirty somethings is young by Broadway-musical standards, there should be a few here that can remember a time when it seemed that roller disco would never go out of fashion).
The plot, though a little bizarre, is easy enough to describe: A frustrated Venice Beach thalassophile/painter named Sonny is visited by the nine muse daughters of Zeus, in particular Clio, to inspire him to open his own roller disco for the well-wheeled non-elite. Clio assumes a new identity – a mysterious roller-skating hottie from Australia with a strong accent, now called Kira. Upon meeting the comely goddess, Sonny gets rizzed up in short order and finds their chemistry to be “magic.”
He’s helped by a middle-aged jazz musician-turned-construction magnate named Danny Maquire (Luke Desmond) who, decades before, had a relationship with someone who eerily resembled Kira. Being a muse is not all fun and games though. There are rules. And the conflict here is that any romantic feelings Kira acquires for Sonny transgresses immortal law, punishable by eternal banishment in the nether world. Uh huh...she's got it bad and that ain't good. Eventually, that’s all worked out (with the help of Daddy Zeus) and their love triumphs over this obstacle.
The score for the original film blends some songs by Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra) with others by John Farrar (for Ms. Newton-John). For the musical, all of these songs are retained, and others by both composers ("Evil Woman," "Strange Magic," and "Have You Ever Been Mellow") are added as well. The musical's best songs are the opening "I'm Alive," "Suddenly," "All Over the World," and the title number. Due to the popularity of the soundtrack of the film (which was better received than the actual movie), many of the show's songs are already well known to audiences.
Ms. Cranford as Kira exudes an effervescent cuteness and has some wonderfully theatrical facial expressions, and one could easily spend the whole show mesmerized by her graceful rollerskate-bevel. Combined with Mr. Munck, who conveys Sonny's deadpan cluelessness spot-on, they both make endearing co-stars, especially during the number “Suddenly.”
Mr. Desmond (who also doubles as the sky and thunder god Zeus) as Danny, also shows just the right balance of humor and sensibility. Then, there’s Rezia Landers and Jordan Ward as sister muses Melpomene and Calliope. Just like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, the two walk away with much of the laughs, even stopping the show a couple of times as the audience roars at their evil antics.
“Xanadu” is as timeless as the roller disco at its center, but isn’t a show that takes itself too seriously and doesn’t ask its audience to either. First and foremost, it’s a satire of one of the most critically trampled movies ever made. Interestingly enough, there are only five lines in the movie that was transferred to the stage.
Directed by Susan K. Berkompas, the Theatre Department Chair for the past twenty-four years at Vanguard University, and Choreographed by Hannah Simmons, blending athleticism with camp to surprisingly potent results that capture all the rah-rah enthusiasm one might expect of gymnasts; the Music Director is Scott Cokeley and Director Berkompas instills the piece with a hipness and an aptly fun and playful tone, staging many moments quite cleverly, and making great use of the performance space, including the aisles and balconies.
Designers Paul Eggington (sets/audio/tech), Garrett Spady (lights), and Lia Hansen (costumes/makeup) help carry out that aesthetic, helping the production find a keen balance between seriousness and parody that provide the look and feel it needs without going completely overboard. A gathering of Medusa, a centaur, and a cyclops singing "Have You Never Been Mellow?" in full Clash of the Titans garb is cutting it close, though.
At least “Xanadu” is in on the joke. The show’s winking attitude toward its own aesthetic abjectness can be summed up thusly: If you can’t beat ’em, slap on some roller skates and join ’em.
Vanguard University Department of Theatre Arts at Lyceum Theatre Presents: XANADU, by Douglas Carter Beane (author), Jeff Lynne (composer/lyricist), John Farrar (composer/lyricist). An adaptation of the Universal film by Richard Christian Danus (screenwriter) and Marc Reid Rubel (screenwriter).
Cast: Elijah Munck as Sonny Malone; Leilani Cranford as Kira (Clio); Kendra Barnhart as Urania & Kira Understudy; Luke Desmond as Danny Maguire & Zeus; Rezia Landers as Melpomene & Medusa; Jordan Ward as Calliope & Aphrodite; Gabrielle Paul as Erato, Andrew Sister, Eros, & Hera; Amanda Marcos as Euterpe, Siren, Andrew Sister & Thetis; Julia Flores as Polyhymnia; Matthew Barge as Terpsichore, Siren, Tubes Singer, Hermes & Centaur; Sean McDowell as Thalia, Siren, Young Danny, Tube Singer & Cyclops; Rylee Schmidt as dancer.
Band: Scott Cokely on piano; Olivia Jimenez on bass; Richard Guzman on guitar; Tom Shirey on keyboard; David Page on drums.
Crew: Natalia Elizalde, Sarah Snow, Nadia Mahoney, Joshua Tribble, Anabella Collins, Nathan Gall, Montana Leyva, Arabella Chrastina, Saige Turney, Gregory Dodd, Nathan Kibbe, Koy Hackworth, Madison Melendes.
XANADU, performing October 20th through November 5th. Performance times: October 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 and November 2, 3, 4 at 7:30pm; October 21, 22, 28, 29 and November 4, 5 at 2:00pm. Ticket prices are $20 for general admission and $16 for seniors, children, college students and groups. For Tickets: www.vanguardtickets.com or call the box office at 714-668-6145.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report