By Brooks Appelbaum
Apparently Xanadu, the musical comedy that opened on Broadway in 2007, ran for over 500 performances, received the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the Drama Desk for Best Book, and was nominated for two Tony awards, had its moment.
Yet one might ask the Musical Theater gods just what kind of moment that was, especially since the show was based on the 1980 cult film and critical disaster, starring Olivia Newton-John, which had the distinction of giving us such pop tunes as “Evil Woman,” among others, and inspiring the Golden Raspberry Awards, memorializing the worst films of each year.
The burning question of this moment, though, is, why in heaven’s name did Connecticut Repertory Theatre choose to end its Nutmeg Summer Series with this breathtakingly odd, musically banal, dramaturgically inert piece? Coming to Xanadu with no prior experience or expectations, I optimistically imagined that a ninety-minute musical, with a few characters on roller skates and just a tiny bit of Coleridge thrown in, would be diverting at the least.
One might expect, too, that a book by Douglas Carter Beane, (who wrote the award-winning The Little Dog Laughed and As Bees in Honey Drown, among others) along with music and lyrics by John Farrar (Olivia Newton-John’s main hit song-writer) and Jeff Lynne (of the Electric Light Orchestra, who later worked with such luminaries as George Harrison, Randy Newman, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, and Paul McCartney), might yield a strong piece. Apparently, with this venture, their Muses abandoned them.
As directed by Vincent J. Cardinal, the cast dances and sings with verve, and one of the two main characters, Luke Hamilton, has genuine star-power. But Cardinal, with only a few exceptions, misses opportunities to play the campy parody that might, possibly, enliven the show. As a result, all the onstage skill and enthusiasm, along with the production team’s imaginative designs, can’t breathe life (mortal or immortal) into this soporific fantasia.
Let’s see. . . how to reconstruct the plot, which is barely discernable? The setting is 1980’s Venice (Beach, that is, not Italy, which is one of the many rather lame attempts at humorous parody). Chalk artist Sonny (Hamilton) has painted a mural depicting the Greek Muses, but upon deciding that his work is no good, he determines to kill himself.
At this point, the actual Muses materialize to inspire him, and Sonny is indeed inspired by this bevy of beauties (two of whom are played by men here, following the show’s Broadway tradition). Because their father, Zeus, decrees that Muses on Earth must disguise themselves, their leader, Clio (Amandina Altomare), decides that to further help Sonny she must assume the brilliant camouflage of leg warmers, roller skates, and an Australian accent. (Remember, Olivia Newton-John was Australian: that explains that.) Further inspired, Sonny decides that he will find a way to combine all the arts into one magical place: a roller disco!
Complications ensue, the first involving real-estate mogul Danny Maguire (Dirk Lumbard), and the second, naturally, involving frustrated love. Because Zeus forbids a Muse to love a mortal, Clio’s jealous older sisters (Colliope, the very funny Steven Hayes, and Melpomene, the equally funny Ariana Shore) curse Clio so that she falls, hard for Sonny and must be punished for it on Olympus.
From there, various obstacles stand in the way of the happy ending and the musical’s big number, “Have You Never Been Mellow.” Signaling the show’s end as it does, never has a 1975 pop song that topped both the Billboard Hot Adult Contemporary Singles chart and reached No. 3 on the Hot Country Singles chart been so warmly and indeed fervently welcome.
I’m leaving out some twists and turns here, but trust me: this is all ye need to know. As for the Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s production, Cardinal’s directing is uninspired (apparently he, too, needed the assistance of a Muse or two), but he has assembled and guided a nearly impeccable cast and design team. Chorus members Jayne Ng, Taylor Alexander Stutz, Annie Wallace, Johnny Brantley III, and Connor Donnally all dance and sing with charm and skill, and they even speak in perfect unison, as Muses must. Steve Hays, as Colliope, and Ariana Shore, as Melpomene, take their evil natures to heights of absurdity. Dirk Lumbard, as the initially heartless Danny, does some lovely tap work and displays spot-on comic timing.
As Clio, Amandina Altomare has the toughest role. For much of the time, she is saddled with an Australian accent that is an utterly unnecessary nod to Newton-John. She’s not quite able to conquer the difficulties of this most difficult dialect, and as a result one struggles to decipher her dialogue and her songs’ lyrics. In addition, the piece demands a leading lady who is not just lovely to look at, but truly beautiful, charismatic (Clio’s a demi-god, right?), a little kooky, and fully able to play a combination of sincerity and spoof. This is a tall order, and director Cardinal isn’t able to help Altomare go beyond sweet and sincere.
The real star of this production is Luke Hamilton as Sonny. From his first moment of breaking the fourth wall to discover us watching him paint, he charms us completely, and throughout the show, he nails Sonny’s combination of by-gosh ambition, unembarrassed ignorance, and starry-eyed love. Hamilton is one of those actors whose utter joy in acting infuses his every move, without taking him -- or his audience -- out of whatever story is being told.
Other standouts in this production are Scenic and Projection Designer, Tim Brown, and Costume Designer Lisa Loen. The show is great fun to look at. And the band (Guitarist Grant Morrison, Nate Ash-Morgan on Percussion, Daniel Moctezuma on Keyboard 1 and Robert Barney on Keyboard 2) nicely supports the singers.
However, one can’t help but return to the central question: Of all the musicals in all the world, why did CRT have to choose this one? Although it’s tempting to bemoan the talent wasted, realistically, actors, singers and dancers love to be onstage, and any job is a good job. More apt sympathy goes out to Xanadu’s unsuspecting audience members. Let me be your Muse: if you truly must have a hit of 1980’s nostalgia, watch the movie (preferably for free).