The setup: The 2007 stage musical Xanadu comes with so much baggage that it should be a Southwest flight. Thing is, most of that baggage is at least 34 years old. That's why people buy tickets to the show -- everything it's based on is embarrassing and awful (roller disco being a glaring but surprisingly unimportant example), but most of you barely remember it, and the show itself is a lot of fun. This month, Arizona Theatre Company lets us Phoenicians (who already have a lot to forget) take a dip in those soothing waters of oblivion.
Having been not merely an adult, but an adult of legal drinking age when the 1980 Olivia Newton-John film version, in which Gene Kelly made his final screen appearance, entered our culture like a dose of herpes, I'd been thinking, "Maybe I didn't see it all the way through. Maybe I didn't pay all that much attention." But then I rustled up and perused a detailed synopsis that has brought (the lack of) it all back to me.
The movie makes no freakin' sense whatsoever. And that's to someone who did see its 1947 inspiration, Down to Earth, which, bizarrely, was a sequel to Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the film that was remade with Warren Beatty as Heaven Can Wait, which is the title of the play that inspired Jordan. (And Chris Rock's Down to Earth is a remake of Heaven/Jordan, not Down to Earth/Xanadu.) Yes, this will be on the final.
It's not a surprise that the film's soundtrack did well. Electric Light Orchestra rules, even though "Telephone Lines" isn't part of the show's score. If you feel differently, just hang in there and we'll find another reason for you to go to Xanadu. Newton-John herself was able to (theoretically) bring enough star power to carry an entire film due to the recent success of Grease. (Turns out she's a single threat, which is nothing to be ashamed of, though Xanadu , a film musical in which the male lead has no songs, is literally the reason the Razzie awards were created.)
But what seems to work lately for remakes/homages/spinoffs is an approach somewhere between loyalty and parody. Some things were goofy even when they were timely, and acknowledging that is perhaps a little braver and more perceptive than merely making fun of past trends. That sense of kinder, gentler silliness, with a huge boost from a drastically new book by Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed, among many other solid writing projects), takes Xanadu to a plane somewhere between Venice Beach and Olympus, where you can dance along to the curtain call and leave feeling kind of . . . just really good.
The execution: Curtains doesn't always talk about plot, but for this one, honestly, how can we not? Okay, so an angsty street artist named Sonny Malone (Kyle Sorrell) who is about to end it all -- despite looking hot in cutoffs -- meets a cute skater girl who looks just like the imaginary subject of his last mural. She's a muse -- not just any old person who inspires an artist, but an original, Greek demigoddess Muse sent to inspire him.
He wants to bring all the arts together in one overwhelming experience, but instead of First Friday, he wants it to be a roller disco with live music and, I guess, paintings. (This is one of the things that seems much dumber in the movie -- you have supernatural powers and that's the most you can inspire? But the script and cast of this production make it work somehow.)
There are complications, of course. Enough to stretch this thing out to a second act, which seems, at some points, unlikely to turn out to be necessary. The addition of minor villains helps raise the stakes but, as they never get their comeuppance, that particular element is no more satisfying than real life -- but the villains are funny and sassy and sing like demigoddesses.
Said Act II also introduces a sparkly realm of the gods populated by, among others, a cuddly Cyclops and a yummy centaur, along with a motorized Zeus throne at which I have no idea why we were all laughing.
A small but entirely sufficient and hard-rocking live band supports the unbelievably efficient cast -- ten people. Ten. That's what a big blockbuster musical can get by with nowadays. Jessica Skerritt, as the Muse Clio (who is the Muse of history and/or maybe lyre-playing) in this version -- maybe because she spends a lot of the play on skates and it made more sense to make a character who gets to dance more into Terpischore, the Muse of dance, whom the female leads of the first Down to Earth and Xanadu represented (you're still taking notes, right?) -- is adorable yet ferociously persuasive as the fantastical vision who disguises herself with the name Kira, skates, leg warmers (whose existence is explained by this script better than anyone but a bunhead can), and an Australian accent.
The odd but genuine chemistry between Kira and Sonny (who are forbidden to fall in love but, of course, do) is beautifully depicted by Skerritt and Sorrell, a Valley actor who took over from the Tucson run's star. And in the stage version, Sonny sings, and Sorrell sings sweetly indeed. (As does Skerritt and the rest of the cast, leading many theatergoers of a certain age to say nice things about "those kids' voices" on the way out of the theater.)
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The humor, charm, and top-notch musicality of the show is only exceeded by the finale, which just vomits a bunch of blacklit fluorescent confetti-drenched balloonage onto the stage and gives everyone a costume change, which is nice, because they got very few up to that point.
The verdict: I can understand why this all might not sound like entertainment to you. But along with most of the rest of the crowd, my companion and I were left with dropped jaws and unstoppable giggles, and unless you just hate fun, you really ought to stop thinking about bad old disco movies, remove the stick from your ass, and see why.
Xanadu continues through Sunday, January 19, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Tickets start at $46; order seats here or call 602-256-6995.