by Zack Smith
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
For a film famously reviewed as "Xana-Don't," the ill-fated 1980 Olivia Newton-John/ Gene Kelly musical Xanadu lingers in the mind. True, it helped kill the movie musical, along with the careers of most people involved, but the color, spectacle and sheer wrongness of the whole venture gave it a certain cult appeal. And the Electric Light Orchestra songs weren't bad, either.
As one who has seen multiple big-screen revivals of Xanadu and even butchered the theme song on a few karaoke nights, it's a pleasure to report that the stage musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2007 and played through the snowy weekend in Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium, enraptured both those bored silly by the original movie and those who still recall with fondness its laser-riffic effects and nonsensical storyline.
Said storyline involves Sonny (Max Von Essen), a none-too-bright Venice Beach artist with a propensity for headbands and short-shorts, who finds a new inspiration in Kira (Elizabeth Stanley). Kira happens to be an actual muse-disguised as human with roller skates, leg warmers and a horrible Australian accent, and she encourages Sonny to pursue his dream of opening the ultimate center for the arts ... a roller disco. Complications ensue that involve Kira's jealous sisters (Natasha Yvette Williams and Annie Golden) and a wealthy developer (Larry Marshall).
The deliberate goofiness of Douglas Carter Beane's book includes a Greek chorus of muses, a love duet in a rolling phone booth, leg warmers as a plot point, a love song performed on a hovering Pegasus and a plethora of ELO songs, many of which Stanley delivers in an uncanny mimic of Newton-John mannerisms. The production calls attention to its own artificiality, with audience members seated on stage and a major character disappearing from the climax...because, it's pointed out, the actor is already on stage in another role.
More than just a genuinely amusing redo of a flop movie, though, Xanadu is a sly critique on the current state of Broadway musicals that's still accessible to those who've never set foot on the Great White Way. In an age where almost every show is either based on a movie or a collection of repurposed rock oldies, Xanadu uses its muse characters and the movie's infamous history to poke fun at the lack of originality on stage while reminding the audience that this is a stage musical based on a movie that uses old rock tunes for its soundtrack.
Perhaps there's still a dearth of original songs and stories on stage, but Xanadu gets plenty of laughs and energy out of what one character calls "the box known as juke." It's enough to almost make you want to buy some leg warmers at the gift shop afterward (yes, they're on sale). Perhaps I won't be the only one mutilating the theme at the karaoke bar. Xanaduuuu....Xaaaaaaaannnnnadduuuuuuuuuuuu....