Warning. This outlandishly entertaining, outrageously ingratiating and absurdly enjoyable little entertainment, which probably has no place in the high priced real estate of Broadway, may well capture your imagination and earn your affection. Director Christopher Ashley and author Douglas Carter Beane have created a sparkling confection out of the remnants of a flop movie from 1980 which starred Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelley and featured the music of the Electric Light Orchestra. They jettisoned the earnestness, the pretension and the movie's failed effort to be a love story for the ages. In their place, they created a light, bright entertainment that invites the audience to have a blast with the hijinks and the movie's peppy ten-song score, augmented with four additional numbers including the Newton-John hit "Have You Never Been Mellow?" (Tony Roberts is, indeed, "Mellow!") At over a dollar a minute, the top price of a ticket is outlandish, and, what is more, the opportunity cost of those minutes is high because the show plays at the same times that more substantive and lengthier entertainments deliver their enchantments. Still, what a fun time!
Storyline: Clio, one of the daughters of Zeus, whose duty is to visit Earth to stimulate the arts, lands not in Venice, Italy in 1780 but in Venice, California in 1980 (euhhh!) where she helps a street artist by the name of Sonny achieve his dream. He wants to open a combination art gallery, night club and roller disco. In the process, she falls in love with the young man. That is a violation of Zeus' absolute rule - no goddess may love a mortal.
The Newton-John movie was an attempt to capitalize on the success of Grease to establish her as a star of the first order. The effort failed because the movie failed at the box office, but its score made a highly successful soundtrack album. The sound of Newton-John's recordings, which had been by John Farrar, and the Electric Light Orchestra's hits, which were principally the work of Jeff Lynne, seemed to mix well. Xanadu was Gene Kelley's last dancing role in a movie and he brought charm to the piece, especially in the old-style dance sequence with Newton-John to the tune of "Whenever You're Away From Me." For the Broadway show, Douglas Carter Beane's book keeps its tongue very firmly planted in its own cheek. For example, in this show based on a failed movie, he has Zeus predict the future of art in the theater as: "They'll just take some stinkeroo movie, add some pop star's songs, throw it on a stage and call it a show!" Christopher Ashley's direction keeps the pace just a smidgeon above the point where the audience might pause to think a bit about the story. As it is, who has time to contemplate character and plot when you are having this much fun?
Kerry Butler, who was the original Penny in Hairspray, and the original Broadway Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors four years ago, handles the lead role nicely but seems a bit unsure of herself even in the overly-simple choreography on roller skates. The role of her artist/love was supposed to be James Carpinello's return to Broadway after Saturday Night Fever failed to make him a big star. However, he injured himself on the roller skates and the role has been temporarily taken by Cheyenne Jackson. Tony Roberts is a joy to watch in the role Gene Kelley had in the movie. It helps that he doesn't have to cope with the demands of roller skating on stage. Among Beane's marvelous additions to the story for the stage version is the team of jealous muses played with all the over-the-top pizzazz needed by Mary Testa and the absolutely hysterical Jackie Hoffman.
With the price of these tickets, it is difficult to accept the sparse setting, or the decision to sell even more tickets by putting some of the audience on stage where their presence is occasionally distracting. At one point, the fabulously funny Hoffman and Testa pull the focus of the audience from the action in front when they offer popcord to some of the on-stage audience members who, at least at the performance we saw, seemed to debate with themselves whether etiquette allowed them to accept. (Please, Broadway, get the amateurs off the stage and out in the audience where they belong!) It is practically inexplicable that set designer David Gallo, who is fully capable of creating fabulous visuals even in small theaters, wasn't allowed to create an imressive effect for the transformation of the derelict theater into the Xanadu roller rink/club of young Sonny's dream. Instead, the plain brick back wall remains visible as a mirror ball is lowered into place. Really!
Music and Lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. Book by Douglas Carter Beane. Based on the screenplay by Richard Danus and Mark Rubel. Direced by Christopher Ashley. Choreogrphed by Dan Knechtges. Music direction and arrangements by Eric Stern. Design: David Gallo (set) Zachary Borovay (projection) David Zinn (costumes) Charles G. Lapointe (hair and wigs) Howell Binkley (lights) T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella (sound). Principal cast: Kerry Butler, Jackie Hoffman, Curtis Holbrook, Cheyenne Jackson for James Carpinello, Tony Roberts, Mary Testa.
The Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street
Running time 2 hours 40 minutes
Price range $51 - $111
A fun, silly and infectious musical comedy
Potomac Stages Broadway