It’s not really necessary to have a musical that makes fun of the 1980s. That decade did the job all by itself, with the release of the nuclear cheeseball movie Can't Stop the Music (featuring Bruce Jenner! In hot pants!) and the terminally sappy The Blue Lagoon. But if you're going to mount a stage musical tribute to a lousy movie, it should offer a chance for some guilt-free fun.
All the elements are there to generate that kind of thigh-slapping glee in Xanadu, a take-off of the campy train wreck of a movie starring Olivia Newton-John. But for some reason, all the coy, meta put-downs and jokey references never quite coalesce in this touring production, now at the Palace Theatre at PlayhouseSquare.
Clio the Muse decides to float downfrom Mount Olympus to Venice, California with some of her sister Muses to help Sonny, who’s struggling with his chalk rendering of, well, themselves. Disguised as a roller skating ditz with leg warmers and Farrah hair, Clio takes on the identity of Kira, an Australian gal out for fun and frolic.
When an inspired but dense Sonny decides to open a roller disco in an abandoned club conveniently called Xanadu, the owner of the property, clarinetist-turned-wealthy-magnate Danny Maguire, is brought into the mix. Meanwhile, a couple of Clio’s sisters, namely the trash-talking Melpomene and clumsy Calliope instigate a plot to make Clio fall in love with Sonny and draw the lightning bolt ire of daddy Zeus.
Threaded through with ELO tunes and other pop songs of the time (“Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic"), the show should be a non-stop festival of cultural effluvia. But the performers never quite find the right tempo, or take enough chances with their characters, to make the material click as it should.
As Clio/Kira, Anika Larsen has the blonde good looks the part requires. But her singing seems a tad weak, and in trying to mimic Newton-John’s breathy delivery she just goes almost inaudible.
Larsen also shares a hesitancy to take risks—risks that are vital for anyone in a comedic role—with Max Von Essen who plays Sonny. This dude should be gloriously, hilariously dimwitted, but Von Essen downplays Sonny’s mental shortfall and thus misses numerous opportunities to generate laughs.
As scheming Melpomene, Natasha Yvette Williams adds a much needed zip to the proceedings. And as her sidekick Calliope, Annie Golden works her geeky schtick as hard as she can, triggering a few giggles now and then. But Larry Marshall as Danny, and later as Zeus, never creates a strong enough character to which we can connect.
There is plenty of eye candy here, including bubblegum-colored costumes, a hailstorm of disco balls, a flying Pegasus, and some amusing mythological creatures that deserve more than a cameo—including a studly Centaur and serpentine Medusa. But the trick of having a few patrons seated on stage only serves to confine the actors’ skating room while adding precious little to the proceedings.
In all, this production of Xanadu is harmless, faintly amusing, and eminently forgettable. But the good news is it brings us a bit closer to the arrival at PlayhouseSquare of August: Osage County next month. With any luck, that show will truly be Xanadu for those who love theater.
Through March 14 at the
Palace Theatre, PlayhouseSquare,
1615 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000