Xanadu -- Take a Xanax
By Geary Danihy
Well, let’s see. First it was a film, released in 1980, that bombed, although it did achieve a certain cult classic status -- people reveled in just how bad it was. Then, like the phoenix, it rose from the ashes to appear, in a much transmogrified form, on Broadway in 2007, running for over 500 performances, in the process receiving an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical, a Drama Desk Award for Best Book and several Tony nominations, which just goes to prove that critics, as well as the ticket-buying public, sometimes can’t see the forest for the stardust in their eyes. The musical is Xanadu, and no matter how you cut it, dice it or stage it, there’s just not much to shout about (but there is the opportunity to shudder or slumber occasionally). In its current manifestation at UCONN’s Connecticut Repertory Theater -- the last entry in the venue’s Nutmeg Summer Series -- it sits up there on the stage like a gilded, bespangled extra from The Walking Dead. Why CRT chose this less than gripping (or coherent) musical to wrap up its summer season is a head-scratcher. Perhaps those in charge had “drunk the milk of Paradise,” and thus thought it was a really good idea.
The musical has many forbears. Yes, there’s the 1980 film that did nothing for Olivia Newton-John’s career (she is, by the way, an Australian native -- more about this later), Lurking somewhere in its DNA is not only Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem but the 1941 film Heaven Can Wait, which spawned the 1947 film Down to Earth, and it has at least a kissing relationship to the 1948 film One Touch of Venus and, as acknowledged by Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the book for the musical, it also owes a debt, such as it is, to the 1981 over-casted film Clash of the Titans.
So, what it this mish-mash musical about? Well, you see, there’s this California street chalk artist named Sonny Malone (Luke Hamilton) who has just drawn this mural depicting the Greek Muses, but he’s disheartened because he feels it isn’t up to par, and in true artist fashion he decides to kill himself by jumping off a bridge. But among the depicted muses (here there’s some nifty projection work by scenic and projection designer Tim Brown), Clio (Amandina Altomare) -- the Muse of history or, alternatively, the Muse of lyre playing (they could have it both way back in those days) -- takes pity on the struggling artist. She comes to life, followed by her seven (there should be eight, but what the hell) “sisters” -- the Greek god Zeus had all daughters, but there’s some gender-bending here -- again, what the hell -- and decides to take human form to save the artist. She suggests to her sisters what form she should take: she will call herself Kira, wear leg warmers, roller skates (hey, this is Southern California circa 1980!)and speak like an Australian. The sisters applaud her idea; they’ve apparently also been drinking the “milk of Paradise.”
However, there’s an impediment to Clio’s good intentions in the form of two of her sisters, Melpomemem (Arian Shore -- who will also appear as Medusa), and Calliope (Steve Hayes, who will later appear as Aphrodite). They are jealous of Clio, so they plot to piss off Zeus by casting a spell that will have Clio not only fall in love with a mortal but also create art on her own, both of which are down in Zeus’s book of no-no’s for his daughters (a father, after all, has to set limits for his daughters).
Clio saves Sonny and inspires him to become a true artist by creating…a roller disco (I kid you not). Standing in the way of this august artistic plan is Danny Maguire (Dirk Lombard), a man who, many years ago, was visited by Clio and inspired by her to create a multi-arts theater named “Xanadu,” but, alas, his urge to make money overwhelmed his artistic leanings and Clio, in a hissy fit (Muses are like that) left him.
To cut to the chase, the Muse and the mortal fall in love, Danny reacquires his “Gotta dance!” persona, Zeus, after a lot of thunderbolt grumbling, gives Clio/Kira what she wants, and everyone celebrates at Xanadu.
The basic problem with this musical comedy, with music and lyrics by Jeff Lyonne and John Farrar, with some borrowings from the Electric Light Orchestra and a reworking of Farrar’s “Have You Never Been Mellow,” is that it yearns to be a farce. As such, it would have had the focus, sharpness and a biting edge that it lacks. By the time the farcical elements are introduced (references to classic mythology, musical theater and films), it’s too late. Those in the audience who catch the references may chuckle a bit, but since the farce and satire haven’t been framed from the beginning, most in the audience simply don’t know what is going on, or could care less.
Then there’s the Aussie spin, obviously originally put in to cater to and play on Newton-John’s heritage. However, it presents a task that Altomare is simply not up to and shouldn’t have been asked to shoulder. With the removal of a few brief lines, she could have played it straight, and much of her dialogue would have been both heard and understood. Given the charge to “talk Aussie,” she often sounds like a Cockney bar maid who suffers from dyslexia.
When Altomare isn’t being “Aussie,” she’s charming, as is Hamilton as Sonny, but there’s really no chemistry between the two characters, regardless of the love hex, mainly because the script doesn’t allow for anything more than basic boy meets goddess. In fact, there’s a lot of talent up there on the stage but, alas, it’s put to poor use. Since there is little or no connection between the songs sung and the plot, such as it is, this turns out to be more of a revue than a musical, with songs that don’t rise much above the mundane and choreography by Cassie Abate that often seems to have the cast just going through the motions.
At least since Show Boat and Oklahoma, there have been coherent and often striking reasons why characters in musicals burst out into song or start dancing. Think of “Maria” from West Side Story, “Soliloquy” from Carousel, “Worst Pies in London” from Sweeney Todd, “Being Alive” from Company, and “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray, to name just a few examples. The problem with Xanadu is that there’s really little or no reason for the actors to sing the songs they do or dance their numbers. It’s all gratuitous. You have to give credit to this talented cast for fighting the good fight and trying to bring life to an essentially moribund musical which has, at its heart, nothing more than the echoes of other artistic efforts.
Xanadu runs through July 19. For tickets or more information call 860-486-2113 or go to www.crt.uconn.edu.