XANADUBook by Douglas Carter Beane
Music and Lyrics by Jeff Lynne
Based on the Universal Pictures Film
Direction and Musical Staging by Robert Bartley
Musical Direction by Mark Mullino
Choreography by Jacob Brent
Set Design by Bob Lavallee
Lighting Design by Dan Schodel
Sound Design by Ashton McWhirter
Production Stage Management by Amy L. Gilbert
Kira/Clio – Brittany Danielle
Sonny Malone – Sean McGee
Danny – Bradley Campbell
Melpomene – Liz Mikel
Calliope – Stacia Malone
Ensemble – Jessi Little, Mallory Michaellann, Thomas Christopher Renner, Darius-Anthony Robinson
Reviewed Performance: 8/3/2013
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Theater Critic/Editor/Founder, THE COLUMN. Member, AMERICAN THEATRE CRITICS ASSOCIATION for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Some of these films are so far out there, so outlandish, bizarre and devoid of any hint of reality that you wonder what on earth were the director, screenwriters and cast smoking or what drugs they were under while making these films. Talk about coloring outside the lines!
Some of these box office flops that became cult/camp classics include The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Clue, Valley of the Dolls, The Big Lebowski, Can't Stop the Music, and John Waters' Polyester. But let us not forget the masterpieces of camp: Showgirls and Mommie Dearest!
There are also those oh so select few that, while they do achieve critical and box office success, they still wear the crown of camp/cult. These films include Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, George Cukor's 1939 The Women, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Brian De Palma's 1976 Carrie, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Take any of those aforementioned titles and recite one line from it at a party or for us theater folk, the dressing room or at rehearsal. Merely say, "Eve was weak!" or "No wire hangers…EVER!" or "Run away!" or "But you ARE in that wheelchair" or "Oh my, what knockers!" and like a dam bursting, others chime in with the next line or go into full character.
Another cult/camp classic is the 1980 musical fantasy film Xanadu. The title refers to the roller derby discothèque within the film but it also is the name of the summer capital of Kublai Khan's Yuan Dynasty in China. For inspiration, screenwriter Richard Christian Danus and Marc Reid Rubel used the 1947 film Down To Earth. Thrown into the script was music by Olivia Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra.
Xanadu starred Newton-John, Michael Beck (who I still remember as the leader swan in the film The Warriors), and the late great MGM star, Gene Kelly. Xanadu, in fact, would be Kelly's last acting role on film. The role that Kelly portrayed (Danny McGuire) is a rehashed past character he already did before in the film Cover Girl starring Rita Hayworth. The film itself was plagued with a mountain of script revisions, editing issues, and lost scenes never filmed causing more confusion for the final product. Fun fact here: Newton-John's at the time boy toy Matt Lattanzi portrayed the role of Young Danny!
When the film was released, it was slaughtered by the critics and just got close enough to break even at the box office. The soundtrack though did go double platinum.
But what made the film so campy was the constant wind machines that seemed to follow Newton-John in every shot, or how her accent went all over the map. The perplexing, head scratching script and scenes were chock full of campy humor. While it earned no Oscars, it did over the years gain an ever growing cult following.
It was only a matter of time before it would become a Broadway musical. In 2006 it had several readings at World Stages in Manhattan, then it became a full-fledged workshop in January 2007 with 30 Rock star Jane Krakowski, Tony Roberts and Cheyenne Jackson. When it transferred to Broadway, only Roberts came along with it. Krakowski had shooting conflicts with 30 Rock while Jackson was still working in a film. Xanadu roller boogied itself to the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway in July 2007. The book was by Tony nominee Douglas Carter Beane who used not only the original film as inspiration but also the 1981 mythology themed film Clash of the Titans. The stage score was comprised of songs from the film version compiled with other songs from the ELO/Newton-John music catalogues.
During previews James Carpinello, who was portraying Sonny, injured his foot during a rehearsal. So two understudies rotated the role until its original star Cheyenne Jackson returned. Along with Jackson on opening night was Kerry Butler as Kira, Tony Roberts reprising his role as Danny Maguire, and Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa as the evil muse sisters.
The musical received glowing, favorable reviews from the New York critics and would run for 513 performances, closing in September 2008. The musical did win the Outer Critics Circle for Best Musical and a Drama Desk Award for Best Book. It also received four Tony nominations including Best Musical and Best Score. It would be the 2010 national tour that would be my first (and so far only) exposure to the world that is Xanadu the stage musical. The tour was headlined by Broadway star Max Von Essen as Sonny.
My review of the musical's tour was nothing but heaps of critical praise regarding the sets, special effects, gorgeous lighting design, the costumes and the plethora of mirror balls for the finale! Beane's book is wickedly hysterical and stuffed to the brim with great one-liners and bits, but also pays great homage to the film and the aspects of the film that made it a campy cult hit. If you saw the movie, there were scenes, lines, choreography, and direction of the stage musical that just made you roll to your sides from laughing so hard. Von Essen and his co-star Anika Larsen nailed their performances to magnificent success. The national tour of Xanadu was a glittery bauble of musical theater candy and I savored every moment. As a fan of the film, the stage musical fulfilled every detailed moment that made it the cult classic film status it had achieved.
WaterTower Theatre is the first Dallas-Fort Worth Equity house to mount a production of Xanadu. This version resembles a roller skate. It glides, speeds up, and floats wonderfully on stage. But while all four wheels are sturdy, two of its wheels seem a bit off kilter and not in sync with the other two, thereby creating an evening of wonky, at times wobbly, production.
Director Robert Bartley lives in New York but has roots in both Addison & the University of North Texas. Bartley has an impressive pedigree of Broadway and national tour credits on his resume. In 2006 he created, directed and choreographed a charity event in New York titled Broadway Backwards. This event raises money to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and The LGBTCC. This past March the event achieved a record-setting final total of $347,060 raised. This has become one of the MUST see charity events of the Broadway community. Over the years he has brought in every major star of Broadway, screen, and TV to perform in this charity.
Bartley has keenly observed and studied the original film because you can see where he sprinkled some great moments and bits that made the film the cult camp classic it is. It's almost like he created these Easter eggs as in a DVD, but on stage, for the hardcore Xanadu fan to notice. See if you can find them! His staging and direction wafts across the stage with a good dose of pace. So it is peculiar that this version has an intermission. On Broadway and for the national tour, the show clocked in at a brisk ninety minutes with no intermission. His use of the depth of the upstage, the mini ramps, the cat walk and sides added lots of eye popping, sensational staging. While this won't matter to most, I grew up obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology. I devoured every book I could find about their gods. They intrigued me with their powers, overlapping love stories and tragedies that befell them. Thus the idea of using a female cast member as Cupid/Eros in one vital key scene was distracting. We all know he is a male.
Having seen the national tour – and it was shown on the Tony Awards telecast when the original Broadway cast performed – the Pegasus actually flies into the air. There is no fly rail system at WTT per se so I was wondering how they would fix this special effect.
Major kudos to Bartley, along with Choreographer Jacob Brent, on what could have been a major visual disappointment but instead they have created a fresh, new and highly entertaining solution for the flying Pegasus! Overall Bartley's direction is a glowing success.
It should be noted that at the Saturday night performance in Act Two, there was from stage right these loud, clunking noises coming from behind the black drapes. It sounded like major pieces of set were being shuffled around on squeaking wheels. The entire back row of audience members near these drapes started to whisper and actually tried to pull back the drapes to see what all the ruckus was about. It didn't help that this loud distraction occurred during a book scene, thus you really could hear the banging and squeaking.
Jacob Brent's choreography is outstanding; from the beat of the first number to the finale he has slathered his dance creations with admiration of 80s dance. Brent must have glued his eyes to every MTV video from the 80s as references and inspiration. The ensemble executes the choreography in clean, pristine unison throughout the evening. Brent has his dancers create a myriad of patterns, lines, formations and staging all over that set. Even in the dark, when they had to change or bring set pieces on stage, you could see them dance in character. Brent does not only bring the film's choreography on stage, he spices it up with his own creations. The choreography for the roller skating is enchanting to say the least! His choreography is a major highlight of the entire production.
Musical Director Mark Mullino, who is also on keyboards, and his three piece combo band do a terrific, first rate job in bringing the music of Newton John and ELO to life. They never overwhelm the singers which is easy to do in that space. It is spotless, refined musicianship throughout the evening. And the idea to use Mullino for a one liner within the show was hysterical to say the least!
Michael Robinson's costumes for the majority of the evening are exquisite creations of cloth. The muses are dressed in solid colors of sparkling arrays of silks, satins and chiffons. This gives them an ethereal look so that when they walk, their costumes flitter behind them. My personal favorite was the sparkly purple confection created for the wicked muse Melpomene. He does stay very much in the 80s within his designs, even for the mortals. For the various costumes that the muses change into for the many musical numbers, you can see that Robinson had great fun in designing and creating them. They are whimsical and rich in color.
But there are some disappointing creations that pop up here and there within the costume palette. For example, when Kira becomes Kitty, I've enjoyed the heavily beaded jazz baby costume that she normally wears for the number "Whenever You're Away From Me." Here, Robinson created a simple red satin gown with barely a hint of sparkle. Alas it is the costumes for the gods on Mt. Olympus where Robinson drops the ball. They are white with draping of toga overlays made of silver sequined material. But they look so ill-fitting on the gods. They appear un-ironed, unkempt, and did not look regal whatsoever. They were not designed to display what god or goddess they were. No hint of what their mystical powers or title holds on Mt. Olympus. Such as the lightning bolt for Zeus.
Another mishap in design is the Minotaur horse costume. In the original, the costume worn by the actor wore white, sparkly tight spandex that covered his legs, and behind him was a massive back section of a horse. The massive tail was made of strips of iridescent Mylar. The actor who wore this original design had two wands that worked the legs and the tail. Robinson chose to create this costume out of what looks like heavy wool carpet fabric. The back of the horse is not fully attached to the actor so you can clearly see a division between his body and the horse. Now if this was intentional for a sight gag in its design, then my apologies here. But then I did not "get" the joke in its design.
There is no wig or make up designer listed in the playbill, but there were glaring mistakes here as well. It has to be written in stone that Kira's blonde wig must match exactly as the film's poster and album cover. That visual is too iconic that cannot be ignored. That visual alone gave it its camp appeal. Thus when the wind machine hits it, we get the joke. Here the wig looks so messy with limp, lifeless curls that had stray hairs. Surely there is a can of hairspray somewhere back stage. The same goes for the wigs worn by the gods; none of them are not coiffed or finely designed. Instead, the wigs the gods wear, in particular Zeus, look like they were taken directly out of the shipping box and plopped on their heads.
I may be nit-picky here, but I did miss the glitter and rhinestone make up that the muses and gods wore. It gave them a nice layer of fantasy and glitzy ethereal. I did see one male muse with a dusting of body glitter, I just so wished the rest of the muses and gods had that array of glitter make up. The scenic design by Bob Lavallee really utilizes the WTT space. There is a mini-rake that anchors the entire set. It gives the center upstage more depth. On either side he has fashioned panels that go from painted blue boards to lighted panels. He has also designed dead center a mini-pit with a circular ramp for the skaters. This mini-pit, with its painting of browns, kind of reminded me of the mini-pit that was created for the Broadway revival of NINE in 2001.
Directly in front of the audience is a path created for skating. High above is a catwalk where the band sits but also where the Xanadu logo hangs. This is a grand set that really works in perfect harmony within Director Bartley's staging and Brent's choreography.
The chalk painted mural that Sonny is creating is usually displayed on a wall. Here it is projected on the center rake set piece which made it difficult to make out. I did like that it came to life as a video.
My only main quibble with the set is that I so wished we got the sea of mirror balls for the finale. That's such a great homage to the film and roller disco. Nonetheless, it's one of the best sets I've seen designed at WTT.
Dan Schodel's lighting design is phenomenal! We are talking Broadway caliber design. The dizzy array of specials and gobos that bathe the set match the emotions within the acting, singing and dancing that is just dazzling to observe. He uses LEDs, lighted panels and swirling lighting throughout the evening. The color palette is a combination of pastels and citrus hues. Every musical number has its own unique design of light. For example during "Strange Magic", when Melpomene and Calliope sing and throw their magic at our two leads, Schodel flashes the same hues of purples and greens that are the colors of the muse's costumes! For "Evil Woman", he has these serpents/ weaves of branches gobo that seals in the evilness of the two muses who want revenge on our leading lady. Even the logo lights up in a series of festive colors. But Schodel does not just pay attention to the musical numbers. Even for the book scenes he has various lighting pools, gels and colors to set the mood for dialogue. This is pristine lighting that is designed by Schodel.
Unfortunately here is where I must comment on the "wobbly" wheel s that I stated earlier. Brittany Danielle and Sean McGee have the leading roles within this version of Xanadu but alas come up with mixed, uneven results.
Danielle is a flawless skater and displays her skating championship titles to great effect on stage in several numbers. Her soprano voice is clear but there are times when she fights within her higher register. She does a great Australian accent that achieves the laughs it's supposed to do. But she at times pushes the comedy way too hard. She, as well as her co-star Sean McGee, forces the comedy and classic camp moments/lines from the film. We are already in the joke, so to hit it so hard loses the camp humor.
She goes in and out when trying to bring those Newton-John mannerisms and speaking voice that gave the film its cult/camp stamp from its fans. If you never saw the film, then she did do a jovial, flawless comedic performance. But for those who love the film, it comes in waves within her craft of comedy.
Mr. McGee goes in a totally different path than what Max Von Essen did superbly in the national tour. I viewed the many video clips on YouTube of Cheyenne Jackson's performance as well. Neither went in the direction McGee goes, which is over-the-top Valley surfer dude. Sonny is neither a surfer nor a Valley dude in the film. I'm all for making the role your own vision. But when you are doing a musical that is based on and relies so heavily on the material that made it into a cult classic, you must stick to originality of that material. McGee also slams the comedic mallet over the audience's heads in pushing the comedy way too hard. Comedy that is covered in camp requires a very difficult tightrope for any actor to walk. To make the comedy hit its mark you cannot embellish or push those classic lines, bits or moments. Newton-John and Beck certainly were not going for camp with their acting while filming. That's what makes it so damn funny. Thus it is so unfortunate that Danielle and McGee over do the comedy.
McGee portrays the mortal artist Sonny Malone. I will say that he has a pair of muscular legs that would make a body builder green with envy. McGee does have a nice tenor voice, but like Danielle, he too struggles with several of his solos, most notably in "Don't Walk Away". On the Tony telecast and cast recording, Jackson went full gusto vocally in that song. In the national tour, Von Essen did these jaw dropping, out this world tenor vocal riffs during the percussion section of this ballad. McGee simply cannot get his voice to go into that register of high tenor riffs that clearly is written into the song.
When both leads relax and just stay in the moment and not push the camp comedy, that's when they are so entertaining and do hit the camp humor dead on like Eros aiming his arrow. Such as their duets "Suspended in Time" and especially "Suddenly". That's when both actors just nailed not only the comedy subtext, but also vocally shined and sparkled like the mirror ball hanging above them.
I was quite entertained by their work, but both seem to struggle to have solid grounding in both their vocals and comedic approach to their roles.
Bradley Campbell never disappoints on stage. When you see his name in your playbill you instantly know that whatever he brings to the acting table will be a hearty meal. With Xanadu he does just that! As Danny, he actually has much more energy and pizazz than the actor who did the role in the national tour. He gives the role many more comedic high points. His buttery baritone voice soothes in "Whenever You're Away From Me". As Zeus, he is epic and majestic with that booming voice that would wake up Hades! Campbell has a warm stage presence that fills the theater with a huggable glow. He is endearing and quite comical in this performance.
The five actors who make up the muses each have their own moment in the spotlight resulting in divine success. They dance superbly in every number.
Their execution of Brent's choreography is another hit making factor within the musical. Not once are they out of sync. Their energy radiates like Zeus's lightning bolts into the audience. They serve up solid, exciting vocals for all their numbers. Thomas Christopher Renner has an exquisite tap solo as "Young Danny". Darius-Anthony Robinson nails that great line as Hermes, resulting in loud applause from the audience. Jessi Little has a lovely solo during "Have You Ever Been Mellow". Mallory Michaellann creates two hysterical scene-stealing moments in the show. The first one is when she sings in a Disney princess sort of voice as the muse of music. Her other moment is when she portrays one of the goddesses on Mt. Olympus. What she does in that scene had the audience roaring in laughter.
But the stars of the entire production are Liz Mikel as Melpomene and Stacia Malone as Calliope. These two comedic pros don't chew the scenery, they devour it!
Both play off each other with such superlative results. They do not try to upstage each other or try to up the other one. Both share the stage, resulting in one of the funniest duos that have graced a DFW stage this season.
Malone is the muse of epics (the sound effect for her had me guffawing loudly). Mikel is the muse of tragedy. Both women don't just light up the stage each time they appear; they torch the mutha of that stage! Malone uses her face to create some knee slapping, hilarious moments throughout the evening. Wait till you see what she does with Mikel during "Strange Magic". I died laughing!
Then there is the great diva of stage, Ms. Mikel! If you do not follow Broadway you may not know this fun fact about her. When she was in previews of Lysistrata Jones on Broadway, the New York Post's normally bitchy theater columnist Michael Reidel wrote in his column that Mikel was a shoo-in for a Tony nomination. I 100% agreed with him! Mikel is another local performer that when I see she is in the cast, I know I will not be disappointed. And she again achieves sizzling success as the villainous, bitter muse out for revenge on her sweet muse sister Kira. Mikel's portrayal of Melpomene is a combination of Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Melisandre from Game of Thrones, Scar from The Lion King, and a good dose of Miranda from The Devil Wears Prada! Her facial expressions are priceless. Just one glare or arc of her eyebrow causes the audience to burst into laughter. But her comedic timing and delivery is by far the best of the entire evening. She nails each comedic line like the seasoned pro she is and what we expect from her. Her vocal interpretation of "Evil Woman", along with Malone, makes it the show stopping number of the night. Malone and Mikel steal the show and turn in pure star power performances in WaterTower's Xanadu.
Okay, so there are some slight issues and problems in this version of Xanadu. But overall it is still a marvelous evening of musical theater. The design elements, choreography and direction do create spell binding, dazzling entertainment. The cast does generate loud, hearty prolonged laughs, sing and dance with lofty success. I know I was hard on the two principals but they both do please the audience as you could tell by the cheers during curtain call. It is the work of the muses, Campbell and especially Malone and Mikel though that truly makes this musical sparkle and crackle with tour de force talent. So put on your leg warmers, grab a can of Fresca and head out to WaterTower Theatre because they have created the radiant and enticing world that is Xanadu!
Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road
Addison, TX 75001
Plays through August 18th
Wednesday - Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday - Saturday at 8:00pm, and Sunday at 2:00 pm. There is and additional performance Saturday, August 17th at 2:00 pm.
Tickets range from $29.00 to $40.00, depending on the day.
Seniors receive a $3.00 discount Wednesday – Saturday.
Groups of 10 or more also receive a $3.00 discount. Student Rush tickets are $12.00 each and available