By Mark A. Newman
The 1980s and all its garish colors and awful fads (leg warmers, head bands) have come skating back to life on the stage of the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, in its rollicking production of “Xanadu,” marking the surprise Broadway hit’s Washington D.C. bow. Who would’ve thought that a musical based on a tepid movie starring Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck (who?), and featuring Gene Kelly’s final on screen appearance would be such a crowd pleaser? I’m here to tell you that’s exactly what it is.
Douglas Carter Beane’s book is by and large the reason for the show’s success as he has either excised or highlighted the biggest slabs of treacle from the screenplay and made it work onstage. The plot—such as it is—involves the Greek muse Clio (a magnificent Erin Weaver) who descends onto this mortal coil in Venice, California in 1980 to inspire the lunkheaded but sweet natured hunky artist Sonny Malone (a winning Charlie Brady) to pursue his artistic vision. The fact that this vision involves opening a roller disco is beside the point, Clio has staked her claim on making Sonny’s artistic dream a reality.
However, her sister muses Melpomene (the always showstopping Nova Y. Payton) and Calliope (a hilariously scene-stealing Sherri L. Edelen) are plotting against her via a curse that will make Clio fall in love with Sonny and thus by the rule of the ancients must be put to death. I’ve heard of sibling rivalry, but seriously! When Sonny finds the perfect spot for his disco, it is owned by Danny Maguire (a jaunty and whimsical Harry A. Winter) a Los Angeles land baron who might or might not have been in love with Clio 40 years ago when he still had his own dreams of being an artist.
First off, you have to realize that you’re not in the theater to see O’Neill, Chekhov, or even Sondheim. “Xanadu” is a slice of frothy fun. In fact, all audience members are given glow sticks as they enter the theater so “tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!” The score consists of Olivia Newton-John and ELO tunes that populated the original dud movie with a few extras thrown in for good measure. In all honesty, these tunes are not exactly the best of the bunch when it comes to the ‘80s era songbook, but in the context of this show, they work perfectly. Matthew Gardiner’s quickly paced direction keeps the 90-minute, intermission-free show bouncing along nicely. Gardiner’s choreography is another exercise in bouncy fun and reminded me of those Saturday mornings watching “American Bandstand” and catching the latest moves. But some of these moves are done on roller skates. Take that, Kool & the Gang!
This little trifle of a show is simply a fun night at the theatre. Let’s face it, sometimes it’s nice to see a musical where most of the cast doesn’t die horrific deaths (I’m looking at you, “Les Miserables!”). Is “Xanadu” entertaining? Yes! Will you laugh your spandex off? Yes! But there are two mini impressions you should gird your loins for: Edelen’s brief but guffaw-inducing Cher impression in “Evil Woman” and Winter’s exaggerated Laurence Olivier as Zeus when the action moves to Mt. Olympus. Any child of the ‘80s who watched Clash of the Titans over and over again on HBO in the summer of 1982, as I did, will get the joke! Actually the joke is on anyone who misses this uproarious finale to Signature’s award-winning 2011—2012 season.
NOTE: Anyone allergic or averse to mirror balls—and lots of ‘em!—are strongly advised to avoid this show.
Featuring: Erin Weaver (Kira/Clio), Charlie Brady (Sonny), Harry A. Winter (Danny Maguire/Zeus), Sherri L. Edelen (Calliope/Aphrodite), Nova Y. Payton (Melpomene/Medusa), with Mark Chandler, Jamie Eacker, Kellee Knighten Hough, and Nickolas Vaughan.
Book: Douglas Carter Beane
Music & Lyrics: Jeff Lynne & John Farrar
Based on the 1980 Universal Pictures film
Direction & Choreography: Matthew Gardiner
Set Design: Misha Kachman
Costume Design: Kathleen Geldard
Lighting Design: Chris Lee
Sound Design: Matt Rowe
Skating Coach: Gregory VanderPloeg
Associate Choreographer: Brianne Camp
Music Director: Gabriel Mangiante
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, VA 22206