Long ago, in a time now known as the 1980s and in a land known as Hollywood, a movie musical premiered, and that movie would become legend. That movie was Xanadu, and while named after the luxurious palace of Kublai Kahn, the film was anything but paradise. While the film has become a cult classic, trying to find someone who can defend the film as a crowning achievement in film is as pointless as searching for a winged Pegasus. When the film premiered, film critic Roger Ebert called it "a mushy and limp musical fantasy, so insubstantial it keeps evaporating before our eyes."
The current stage version presented by the Zach Theatre in Austin is many things, but never is it limp, insubstantial, or desperate. Instead, it is two hours brimming with joy, laughter, and sequins.
The plot of the stage version is fairly faithful to that of the film. Starving artist Sonny Malone (Matthew Redden) falls for the mysterious Kira (Jill Blackwood), who is really a Greek muse brought to life. Sonny's dream is to open a roller disco and finds that former nightclub owner/current building developer Danny Maguire (Rick Roemer) owns the perfect property: Xanadu. However, the stage version adds a twist involving Kira's sisters, particularly the evil Melpomeme (Michelle Alexander) and Calliope (Lara Wright). Will Sonny be able to open his roller disco and get the girl? Well without spoiling anything, keep in mind that this is Xanadu, not Les Miserables.
While the plot may be thin and trivial, this is a show where every element and moment is entertainment gold. The Tony nominated book by Douglas Carter Beane punctuates the thin plot with vaudevillian one-liners and jabs at the original material, particularly the film's star, Olivia Newton-John and her Australian accent. The songs by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar feature some big disco hits, including "Magic," "Evil Woman," "Have You Never Been Mellow," and of course "Xanadu," and the three person onstage band easily brings the music to life. Given the frequent jokes about the cheap, bland feel of 1980s art, the technical aspects of the show are fairly simple. There are no falling chandeliers or giraffes on stilts. Instead, the unit set by Michael B. Raiford, pleasant costumes by Susan Branch Towne, and atmospheric lighting by Michelle Habeck serve the piece well without overshadowing it with showiness or opulence. And Nick Demos's direction allows the show to be over-the-top, exuberant, and fun without reaching that threshold of obnoxiousness that many shows in the parody genre reach and surpass. His decision to focus on the fun, lighthearted energy of the 1980s even extends to the disco-era pre-show music and the after-show dance party on Friday and Saturday nights. Demos's choreography enhances the high-energy feel of his show and is a delight to watch.
But what really makes Xanadu succeed is the stellar cast. While all nine actors in the company give fantastic performances, there are some stand-outs. As Danny Maguire, Rick Roemer is able to transition from being gruff and stuffy to charming and optimistic in the blink of an eye without it seeming forced or fake. Matthew Redden's take on the likeable but sometimes intellectually challenged Sonny Malone is adorable and infectious. As the evil muse Melpomeme and her sidekick Calliope, Michelle Alexander and Lara Wright do the perfect amount of scene stealing and scenery chewing. And Roberto Araujo, as muse Thalia and other characters, proves to be the epitome of tenacity, giving an all-out, nothing-held-back performance despite the dislocated elbow he suffered during rehearsals. His Gene Kelly-esqe tap solo in Act I is a highlight of the show.