Something’s definitely out of this world these days at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Roberts Studio Theater, which Speakeasy Stage Company calls home. Their current production of the 2007 Tony-nominated stage musical “Xanadu”, based on the 1980 movie, in turn based on an old Rita Hayworth film, “Down to Earth”, has just rolled in. (Literally, but more about this later). As those of us unlucky enough to have seen the original “Xanadu” film may have difficulty suppressing, its story of a heavenly muse who descends to earth to help a guy fulfill his dream of owning a nightclub is generally credited with almost singlehandedly causing the death of the major movie musical (until “Chicago” in 2002). Starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly (his final role due to his subsequent death, not the death of his career, though this film could have done it), it was nominated for the first Razzie Award as Worst Movie of the Year; in fact, it was one of the finalists for the Razzie as Worst Musical in 25 Years. The only creative elements were its snazzy segues or dissolves between scenes, the last one being the best, as it meant “THE END”. Given its absurdly dumb threadbare plot, jaw-droppingly awful acting, terrible (and terribly shot) choreography, ugly motley costumes and deadly dull sets, if this movie had had any life in it, it would’ve barked.
Thus it took a lot of chutzpah for the creators of the stage musical version to propose resuscitating or resurrecting this godly mess. Douglas Carter Beane (who wrote the hilarious “Little Dog Laughed”, “Sister Act” and the recent “Lysistrata Jones”) provided a book that changes the hero’s dream pursuit of a nightclub into a roller disco. The score compiled by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar was a pastiche of original songs, songs written for the film, as well as from other sources. It featured future stars belter Kerry Butler and heartthrob Cheyenne Jackson, and old trouper Tony Roberts. At awards time, it not only garnered four Tony nominations (in a season that boasted “In the Heights” and “Passing Strange”, as well as the instantly forgotten “Cry Baby”, another work based on a movie), but won a Drama Desk Award for Beane’s book. It also earned the Outer Critics Circle award as Best Musical (shared with “Young Frankenstein”). Perhaps it was, after all, not so much creative chutzpah as divine intervention.
And speaking of divine, Director Paul Daigneault and Choreographer David Connolly have together helmed a musical miracle. Daigneault has pulled out all the stops for this shamelessly pun-packed spoof of a trunk full of theatrical clichés, and Connolly has the cast on their toes and in their skates with depth-defying precision. This cast includes McCaela Donovan as Clio/Kira (with a marvelously dead-on deadpan take on Olivia Newton-John) once again showing her comic chops (is there nothing this woman can’t do?), Ryan Overberg as Sonny the perfectly wonderful male bimbo (who has had much productive time in the gym), Robert Saoud as Danny Maguire and Zeus (sublimely riotous in both roles), Kathy St. George as Calliope and Aphrodite (scene-stealingly hilarious) and Shana Dirik, menacingly funny as Melpomene/ Medusa. The Scenic Design by Crystal Tiala, Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley and Lighting Design by Karen Perlow are all tongue-in-cheekly wonderful, especially with the entrance of the “War Horse”, Pegasus. (And Julie Taymor, eat your heart out).
Ironically, since this is a musical, the disco score is easily the least inspirational element of the show. What makes this show much more enjoyable than it has any right to be is the hysterically hip and sharp dialogue by Beane. At one point, a muse muses that since she’s the demi-goddess of inspiration, what in heaven is she doing in a theater? At another point, Zeus decrees that mortals will have the nerve to take old movie songs and string them together to make a stage musical. It’s just this sort of loving self-mocking attitude that sends an audience into convulsions of stomach-aching laughter.
The original mythical Xanadu was Kubla Khan’s pleasure palace, and the Calderwood Pavilion becomes just that for the ninety minutes of this intermission-less romp. It turns out after all that somebody up there likes us.