SpeakEasy's "Xanadu": A-Muse-ment Rocks, and Rolls

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 clich├ęs, 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.


New Rep's "Little Shop": A Tale of Two Tendrils

Attend the tale of Audrey II. She’s green and mean, this cousin of the Venus fly trap. A true pistil-packing momma with a profoundly bass voice, she’s the horticultural star of New Rep’s final production of the season, “Little Shop of Horrors”. This off-Broadway hit of the 1982 season (with a five year run, winning the New York Drama Critics and Outer Circle Critics Best Musical Awards) is based on a much-beloved, campy cult black and white 1960 film by Director Roger Corman (the king of the low-budget B movies) and Screenwriter Charles Griffith. It ultimately became a 1986 film musical, and was revived on Broadway in 2003. Most prophetically, it was the first mega success of novice creators Alan Menken (score) and the late Howard Ashman (book and lyrics), who would go on to such efforts as “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

“Little Shop”, only their second work together, was a loving tribute in farce to the horror movie genre, spoofing 60’s rock and roll, doo-wop, and Motown sound, television sitcoms, and several other targets. Ashman’s book and lyrics were filled with intentionally outrageous puns (for example, referring to the character of a sadistic dentist as the “leader of the plaque”). Some of his other references (“Father Knows Best”, “The Donna Reed Show”, “December Bride” and even “Howdy Doody”) may not resonate with younger audience members today, but most of their fang-in-cheek humor is timeless, if treated with affection and in the right hands.

And this production is certainly in the right hands. Attention must be paid to the direction and choreography by Russell Garrett in his New Rep debut. His respect for this work, which he has described, quite accurately, as true “musical comedy heaven”, shows in his faithful treatment, balanced with a considerable number of original and imaginative touches. Attention must also be paid to the often underappreciated Music Direction by Todd C. Gordon, credited with work on literally dozens of New Rep musicals. As usual, technical credits are superb, never more important than in this particular work. Peter Colao, Scenic Designer for New Rep as far back as “Sweeney Todd” and responsible for constructing all of the company’s sets for the last decade, has captured just the right tone with an amazingly complex set. Costume Designer Frances Nelson McSherry, who was Assistant Costume Designer on the original off-Broadway production, obviously had a ball with the Skid Row outfits, which one character describes as at least not “cheap and tasteless” (but they are, they are, and deliciously so). Paul Perry’s Sound Design was a bit unbalanced at times, and the Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr. missed a few cues, but these were minor glitches, easily adjusted, and understandable given that the cast covers a lot of stage territory.

Ah, and that cast. Blake Pfeil as Seymour, in his New Rep debut, is the ultimate nerd working in a struggling Skid Row flower shop; his innocent mimicking of his co-worker Audrey’s accent (as living in “the guttah”) alone is worth the price of admission. Susan Molloy plays Audrey (the part played so memorably by Ellen Greene in both the original production and the film musical) with the perfect tone of the clueless bimbo. Bill Mootos stands out as her boyfriend, Orin the Dentist, and several other roles, reminiscent of his recent work in “Hound of the Baskervilles” at Central Square Theater (another multi-role effort requiring many quick costume changes). Another standout was Lovely Hoffman as Crystal, one of the Greek chorus trio that included fine performances by Jennifer Fogarty as Chiffon and Ceit McCaleb Zweil as Ronnette. Paul D. Farwell as Mr. Mushnik, the owner of the flower shop, seemed to be growing in the role. And then there were Timothy John Smith as the voice of Audrey II and Timothy P. Hoover as her “manipulator” or puppeteer. Together they make one unforgettable villain’s cry, “Feed me!”, providing, oxymoronically, a hysterically hammy plant. How Audrey II miraculously appears, unites Seymour and Audrey, grows, and forever changes the lives of most of the cast, is best left for audience members to discover for themselves.

In a season that included the very memorable “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, this is arguably the highlight. A disclaimer might be in order here: “Little Shop” is one of this reviewer’s all-time favorite shows. Thus it was a relief to find it recreated and refreshed by such trust in the material, which truly pays off. Those familiar only with the film musical version will note some differences; here there is no masochistic dental patient (as in both film versions), and, most significantly, a darker ending. Audrey II is about to take over the world. As one character puts it earlier in the show, “you’re not in Kansas anymore”. One piece of sage advice sung at the end of the show and worth repeating: “Don’t feed the plants!”