Xanadu embraces its cheese proudly and enthusiastically
Book by Douglas Carter Beane. Music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. Directed by Dean Paul Gibson. At the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, June 27. Continues until August 4
Would you like some cheese on your cheese, with maybe a side of cheese? Xanadu has moments of terrific, surprising excess. It also gets repetitive.
A parody of the panned 1980 cult movie, the stage version of Xanadu tells the story of Clio, one of the nine Greek Muses, who emerges from a chalk drawing on Venice Beach, transforms into a roller-skating Australian singer named Kira, and inspires Sonny, a struggling artist, to open a roller disco. But wouldn’t you know it? Kira falls in love with the mortal Sonny, a transgression that Zeus has threatened to punish with death. What’s a Muse to do?
There’s a subplot too. Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the book, borrowed a few ideas from the 1981 fantasy film Clash of the Titans, so, in his musical, it’s Kira/Clio’s sister Muses Melpomene and Calliope who curse her with the love bug.
The big appeal here is the delicious unselfconsciousness of bad taste. Why else would anybody want to remember the ’80s? The excuse of mockery allows cast members—and those of us in the audience—the relief of being unabashedly enthusiastic and uncool.
The energy and—crucially—the precision in director Dean Paul Gibson’s mounting are immense.
When that energy and precision combine with strong material, the show combusts. Beatrice Zeilinger (the scheming Melpomene) and Bonnie Panych (Melpomene’s flunky, Calliope) are hilarious. Together, they knock “Evil Woman” out of the park. I’ve rarely heard Zeilinger sing, but—man!—she’s got a big, rockin’ voice. And as a comic, she works a fantastically forceful deadpan.
Zeilinger couldn’t have a stronger on-stage partner than Panych, who should patent her grumpy troll-woman shtick. Students of acting, take note: Panych’s choices are big, simple, and fresh.
In the wickedly strong supporting cast, Vincent Tong does a dance number, choreographed by the playful Lisa Stevens, that’s so athletic he makes Gene Kelly look like a wuss. Stephanie Liatopoulis and Cailin Stadnyk also get their moments to shine. And although J. Cameron Barnett (the very gay muse Terpsichore) proves that, yes, it is possible to oversell material, even in a parody of a 1980s cult film, the guy is so precise that he is very watchable.
The leads are young—but I’m sure they’ll age during the course of the run. Marlie Collins (Kira) is gorgeous, she’s got a pop star’s pipes, she sports a reasonable Australian accent (which ain’t easy), and her timing is solid. She’s got everything in place; she just needs to relax a little and let it fly.
Gaelan Beatty makes an interesting choice in that he underplays Sonny, keeping the moments between his character and Kira almost private. But Xanadu is nothing if not showy. Beatty, who can really roller-skate, is already delivering a solid performance, but it’s going to be a lot more fun if he ever chooses to open it up.
The basic problem, though, is about the relationship between content and form. Xanadu’s plot is predictable, its theme—art is important—is baldly stated, and the music (ably delivered by a busy band under the direction of Bill Sample) gets repetitive. So to maintain interest, the production has to keep topping itself. It doesn’t. In this mounting, Act 1 hits a camp note and stays there. In Act 2, a scene on Mt. Olympus finally bumps it up a notch. In that passage, one of the best in the show, we get a barrage of giddy invention. Complete with wacky headdresses—Aphrodite sports a gigantic gold shell and a pearl—Rebekka Sorensen’s goddess costumes are both witty and gorgeous. Then there’s the centaur. And all of the performers are having a great time.
You will too. Just don’t expect it to be nonstop.