Dallas Summer Musicals
Reviewed Performance 4/8/2010
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Xanadu the musical (presented by Dallas Summer Musicals at the Music Hall at Fair Park through April 18) follows a trend that has become almost the norm for Broadway musicals in the last 5-10 years. This is that of using a motion picture as the primary source to build a musical around.
Just look at last year alone as a prime example. We had Shrek, 9 to 5, and Billy Elliot. Past seasons we've had everything from Hairspray to Footloose. There have been a plethora of critical hits and box office flops sprinkled throughout the years when it comes to this genre. There's been The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Saturday Night Fever, Cry Baby, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and so on. And there is no hint of this trend subsiding anytime soon.
Coming down the great white way in the coming season and future include the following films that are being adapted or revamped for the stage: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Carrie (a revival of the historic flop), and Blazing Saddles.
Xanadu is based on the 1980 film starring Olivia Newton John and Gene Kelly. While the film was in production, disco was still the hottest genre of music that was all over the air waves, TV, and discoth?ques around the globe. But when the film was finally released, disco had met its untimely death. What further buried the film into the grave of musical movie flops were its scathing reviews, cardboard acting, and head scratching story line. The film's score did create a few major hit singles, but that was close to the word success that this film could achieve.
The film would go on to tank at the box office and film historians have claimed that the film killed Olivia Newton John's celluloid career. It would also become Gene Kelly's last appearance as a film actor. When asked about Xanadu Kelly had stated, "The concept was marvelous but it just didn't come off."
But in that strange convolution of fate, the film over the years has become a cult favorite. Like Rocky Horror, there have been parties where people recite the trite lines or sing along to the numbers. Others find the kitsch factor within the film irresistible.
So what on earth does "xanadu" mean? It derives from the poem: Kubla Khan, or A Vision in a Dream. It is the name of the Chinese province where Khan establishes his pleasure garden in the poem.
The birth of this movie turned into a musical began as stage readings in 2006 with the New World Stages. A year later in January it was given a workshop at the Minetta Lane Theater. The cast for this workshop included Jane Krakowski, Tony Roberts, and Cheyenne Jackson.
The production finally strapped on its roller skates, grabbed their disco mirror balls and settled on Broadway at the Helen Hayes theater in 2007. But this would be without Krakowski and Jackson. Jane by then had been cast in NBC's hit 30 Rock, while Jackson was shooting the film Hysteria.
Fun Fact: The current season of 30 Rock has actually reunited Krakowski and Jackson as he starred as a new cast member in several episodes this past season.
Previews began in May with Kerry Butler and James Carpinello taking over the leads. This would Carpinello's second leading role in a film turned into a Broadway musical. His first was Saturday Night Fever as "Tony Manero." I saw SNF on Broadway twice, and must confess I found this musical completely highly intoxicating.
During the Xanadu preview run Carpinello (as "Sonny") injured his foot roller-skating during a rehearsal, forcing him to withdraw from the production. But with the stroke of Zeus's hand, Cheyenne Jackson returned to take over the role.
Book writer Douglas Carter Beane stated in an interview with Playbill that he used more than just the film as a source. He actually also used the 1981 film Clash of the Titans starring Harry Hamlin. It was this film that gave him the creation of the subplot involving the jealous sister/muses to doom Kira's love for a mortal that was met with fury from their father, Zeus. Beane wanted the musical to also focus on actual Greek mythology, but layered in parody references to the original Xanadu film.
Xanadu would skate on Broadway for 512 performances, closing in September 2008. The musical did win Best Musical from the Outer Critics Circle Awards and also received three Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical and Best Book.
Xanadu the national tour has now roller skated to Dallas Summer Musicals to play through April 18 at the music hall.
Douglas Carter Beane's book for the musical weaves and swims between Greek mythology, the film, and parody with its tongue planted firmly within its cheek. A lot of movies turned into musicals fail because the book cannot connect or intertwine what was so admired about the film (and its songs) into a workable book. But Beane actually does achieve this in hysterical results. I find myself in d?j? vu land here because I also highly praised Beane's book for another musical constructed around Greek mythology, Give It Up! (which had its premiere here in Dallas this year).
Director Christopher Ashley and Book writer Beane avoids of not making cruel fun of the original film, but instead gives it a sweet tribute, but also layering it with lots of great one-liners and a sweet story line. You get a sense of them giving a wink to the audience in letting them know that they know where the film got corny and cumbersome, but throws in the perfect zinger for the audience. Beane masterfully fabricated the songs into the book with finesse and solid humor. Those who worship musical theater and are avid Broadway followers will catch a lot of the jokes and set ups that are sprinkled throughout Beane's witty book. Not really surprised here that Beane earned a Tony nomination for this hysterical book.
Ashley's direction is flawless, detailed, and laminates the production with lots of topical references. Sure, it's over the top, kitschy, and silly-but so what?! I'm all for great art and vision in the musical theater (Spring Awakening, Rent), but I also equally love with a deep passion musicals that are wild, zany, and over the top-which XANADU is. Just when you think the production gets near a soggy moment, Ashley throws in a physical bit of staging that slays the audience. His direction is top notch here.
Dan Knechtge's choreography is a smashing success here. Now if you saw the recent smash hit Give It Up! by Dallas Theater Center this season, then you are already aware of his work. He served as director and choreographer for that production, which was just optioned for Broadway (which in my review of that show stated that it demands to be on the Great White Way).
His homage to disco, roller skating, and eye popping formations are all intertwined within his choreography for Xanadu. His choreography does have a slight veil of Fosse what with the use of hands and arms, while making the body create very idiosyncratic formations on stage, which looked fascinating on stage. Even during the ballads, Knechtge has the ensemble dancing and moving in effortless choreography.
As for the design elements, well let's just say they are exquisite and dazzling throughout the evening.
Scenic designer David Gallo creates as its base a circular roman coliseum, right down to a row of columns. Then he brings out bits and pieces of scenery throughout the evening with impeccable results. From a phone booth, to Zeus's throne, right down to a flying Pegasus and glittered clouds! Plus any designer that has literally a shower of mirror balls coming down from the heavens earns a gold star in my book! As an homage to the origins of Greek theater, Gallo fashions his design to remind you of those amphitheaters in which the Romans sat in the bleachers. Only this time its actual audience members who sit there and join in on the fun!
The spectacular lighting design is created by Howell Binkley which floods the Music Hall like an explosion of pastel skittles due to all the illustrious colors on his palette. There are layers of special gobos created in eye popping designs. Take a look at how in some numbers he has a never ending progression and changes during a musical number. Such as "Evil Woman," `Don't Walk Away," and the title number. These numbers had dazzling lighting elements and colors that kept switching, changing, and twisting not only by verse, but even with a single word within the lyrics!
Aiding Gallo and Binkley was the spiffy and magical projection design by Zachary Borovay. His creation of the painted mural really is marvelous to watch change and even melt during the show.
David Zinn had wicked fun in his costume design for this disco flavored musical. The muses are covered in silks, satins, chiffon, rhinestones, sequins, and tons of glitter. His creations for the gods on Mt. Olympus are sublime white togas sprinkled in beading that give them a very ethereal aura.
For national tours, it is unusual to have small casts, but you would not notice that with this heavenly Xanadu cast of 11 performers. With all the various roles they all play within the musical you would think it was a cast of hundreds! They go from muses to mortals to gods!
Max Von Essen steals the show as "Sonny," the mural artist who wants to turn a decaying old theater into a glittery roller disco. It takes a real man to wear blue jean shorts that are not only very tight but cut quite high as well -- but Von Essen wears them like a badge of honor. His comedic timing and delivery was spot on perfect. He knew exactly which words or lines to completely change the tone and pitch of his speaking voice to really hit comedy payola throughout the evening.
With his matinee idol good looks he reminds you of those Tiger Beat idols. Von Essen possesses a glistening tenor voice that shines throughout his musical numbers. The vibrato was rock solid, which gave him firm foundation to crescendo into the big notes, but to also float effortlessly for his falsetto. His best number is easily "Don't Walk Away" -- it's a showstopper of a number. It is very rare to have pretty boy actors in musical theater to possess the art of comedy. Comedy requires a banquet of elements, such as subtext, pace, delivery, and that unique talent of finding the hidden joke before and during the punch line. That cannot be taught. Von Essen is that rare exception. He is not only the romantic lead, but also has the sharpest comedic talents in this production. You won't want to miss him in Xanadu!
Anika Larsen originated the role of "Euterpe" in the Broadway production, but now she stars as "Clio/Kira," the Olivia Newton John role. Ms. Larsen is a gorgeous, sexy, empyrean beauty that liquefies your heart the second she steps on stage. Her golden hair is a bountiful, bouncy, cascading creation that glows around her, giving her the perfect illusion of mythical muse. She wisely knows where to pay tribute to Newton John with some great line deliveries, hair flipping, and Australian accent. This talented girl even does a sensual Southern belle accent for the role of "Kitty!" Larsen sings with a divine soprano voice that can segue to and fro within the pop, soft rock, disco, and Broadway genres within her assigned solos. Some of her best musical moments include "Suddenly," "Whenever You're Away from Me," and "Suspended in Time."
Larsen and Von Essen creates the terrific ing?nue romantic couple. Their chemistry shimmers just like the mirror balls that float above them. They play off each other beautifully, both in the comedic elements as well as the romance. Their duets within the score are sweet pieces of musical candy that either having you laughing loudly (such as "Suddenly") or warm your heart (such as "Suspended in Time").
Getting some of the heartiest laughs from the audience are Natasha Yvette Williams and Annie Golden. Williams is "Melpomene," who first was the muse of singing, but then became the muse of tragedy. This makes sense when you see Williams devour the role with her hysterical comedic talents as well as her power house vocal lungs. Golden portrays "Calliope," the muse of heroic poetry, she would be best known though as Homer's muse, the inspiration for the Iliad and the Odyssey. Williams brings down the house with her wild, bold, and booming soulful vocals to "Evil Woman," while Golden adds great comedic elements to the number. They may play the villains of the piece, but they are so wickedly hilarious that you overlook their evil deeds.
Larry Marshall portrays the Gene Kelly role, "Danny Maguire." For you fans of the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar you'll be thrilled to know that Mr. Marshall portrayed "Simon Zealotes" in that film. I'll be truthful here in saying that I actually much preferred Marshall's marvelous singing voice over Tony Roberts (who originated the role of "Danny" on Broadway). His vibrato is vibrant and controlled, while Roberts sounded a tad off on the original cast recording. Marshall delivers a delightful and mirthful performance as the owner of the deteriorating Xanadu building.
Kevin Duda, Veronica Kuehn, Corbin Reid, Jesse Nager, Amy Goldberger, and David Tankersley make up the superb Xanadu ensemble. They all danced splendidly, sang in lush tight harmonies, and provided some side splitting laughs throughout the evening. Each of them had their own special moments that give them the opportunity to shine on stage. That is rare in today's Broadway musical.
It is down right hysterical that two of the men of the ensemble have to play muses (there's a great inside joke in the book explaining this). Duda is "Thalia," the muse of comedy. Duda nails the comedy with jovial facial expressions. He also has great fun as "Eros" and the "Cyclops."
Jess Nager is "Terpsichore," the muse of dance. This fits like a glove in the show because later Nager portrays a younger version of "Danny" and does a show stopping tap solo in "Whenever You're Away with Me." Nager also slays the audience in laughter as "Hermes," Zeus's messenger (the one with wings on his sandals).
Veronica Kuehn achieves loud guffaws as "Thetis," one of the goddesses on Mount Olympus. This role was portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith in the 1981 film Clash of the Titans, so if you saw that film-you'll get the jokes and performance by the talented Ms. Kuehn.
David Tankersley not only portrays the centaur, he also has some awesome skating choreography that you will marvel at when sails and glides all over the stage on those wheels.
Like Medusa (staying on the Greek mythology theme here), some bitter, cynical critics will try to turn this musical into stone by writing how trite, over the top, and silly this musical is. Just like Perseus, turn away and avoid the negativity.
Director Ashley and Beane work on Xanadu like a jigsaw puzzle by adding memorable moments of the film, its original film stars, the '80s, and the film's score to construct a frothy, gut-busting, delicious disco of a musical. The gods on Mt. Olympus secured a superior national tour cast of wildly talented mortals to bring Xanadu to life. Even if you never saw the movie or know the songs, you still will have a fantastic, magical evening with Xanadu. So go, because you really do not want to make Zeus angry, forcing him to throw some of his thunderbolts at you!