Filichia Features: Xanadu: Rolls (and Roles) On Skates

Filichia Features: Xanadu: Rolls (and Roles) On Skates

It happens at many a performance attended by critics. An actor says a line that resonates with the aisle-sitters, and suddenly these men and women are reaching for their notebooks to precisely take down what they’d just heard.

The line they’re citing might well be brilliant, a pearl from the playwright’s incisive mind. On the other hand, it could be a clunker that illustrates how bad the show is. Whatever the case, the critics recognize it as something they’ll want to share later as Exhibit-A of a show’s worth or lack of it.

Back in 2007, I was seated in Row L when I attended a critics’ performance of Xanadu. Thus, I was able to see plenty of heads and arms in the rows in front of me simultaneously swoop down to their notebooks.

And what line made them stenograph? “This is like children’s theater for forty-year-old gay people.”

I wonder at what point Douglas Carter Beane, Xanadu’s clever bookwriter, came up with that observation. I wouldn’t be surprised to hearthat it didn’t go in until rehearsals or even previews were well underway, when Beane had a solid chance to see what he and songwriters Jeff Lynne and John Farrar had truly brought to (and wrought on) Broadway. To be sure, there have been more complimentary lines written about musicals, but few that have been as accurate.

Kerry Butler with the cast of Xanadu on Broadway (© Paul Kolnik)
 

And yet … and yet … at the Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska a few weeks ago, two Xanadu performances given by Pine Creek High School from Colorado Springs proved that the musical also has the power to entertain kids from one to 92, be they gay or straight.

 

 

 

Isabel Graf with the cast of Pine Creek High School's Production of Xanadu at the 2015 International Thespian Festival (Photo © R. Bruhn)


Still, “This is like children’s theater for forty-year-old gay people” was greeted with the type of laughter and applause that said “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” Hey, what else CAN anyone think when witnessing this rewrite of the infamous 1980 film? It suffered the ignominious fate of being nominated in every category of ”The Razzies,” the “awards” that are meant to mock and not honor. Worse, in 2005 The Razzies’ powers-that-be decided to celebrate their silver anniversary by naming the most putrid films of the previous quarter-century. Need I give you the one-word, six-letter name of the winner in the “Musical Film” category?

Ah, but ever since the ‘70s, when The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show introduced the So-Bad-It’s-Good stage musical, Broadway has often offered this type of fare. Some shows have over-the-top humor, but Xanadu has over-the-top-of the-Matterhorn humor. Original director Christopher Ashley (and Pine Creek director Carrie Barnhardt-Roberson) appropriately achieved the latter.

However, Xanadu wound up with four Tony Award nominations and six Drama Desk nominations, including a Best Musical nod in each. Beane actually won the latter prize for Best Book, and Xanadu’s 512-performance run was approximately 512 times longer than many so-called savants and nay-sayers had predicted when it was announced for Broadway.

Xanadu does contain, as they say, sexual situations. But the whole enterprise is so outrageous that they’ll mostly amuse rather than offend. Kids who have spent summers in theater camp will find this a very different kind of camp. Even without its Wizard of Oz reference (the one that starts with the words “People come” and ends with “around here”), Xanadu would still be a campfest.

Cheyenne Jackson as Sonny and Kerry Butler as Kira/Clio in the Original Broadway Production of Xanadu (Photo © Paul Kolnik)


Sonny Malone is a California surfer dude who’s now into drawing chalk murals. Why this dim bulb chooses the Greek mythological Muses as his subject may seem inexplicable, but it does inspire an actual appearance by seven of the nine Muses. (Urania, the Muse of Astronomy and Polyhymnia, the Muse of Hymns, must have been on vacation.)

Before the show is finished, no less than Zeus will call Xanadu’s source material as “a stinkeroo picture” -- and who of us would dare take issue with a GOD? But those who say Xanadu has no educational value must concede that it affords kids the chance to become familiar with seven classical names from Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry, to Thalia, the Muse of Comedy.

Even if students don’t remember all seven, they’ll certainly retain the name of Clio, the Muse of History, for she’ll become romantically linked with Sonny. Of course she can’t just walk up to him and say, “Hello, I’m a Greek muse” without his running the other way, so Clio assumes a new identity: Kira. Why does this Mediterranean miss speak with an Australian accent? Ah, that’s a tribute to Olivia Newton-John, the Melbourne-raised star who graced the 1980 film.

Here in Nebraska, the statuesque Isabel Graf did a spot-on Newton-John imitation. The accent may have been lost on those who don’t know the film or the actress, but it was still funny for its own sake.

Why a Muse of History would encourage Sonny to open a roller disco has never been satisfactorily explained, but we must accept it at face value. An abandoned theater would be ideal, but the one they spot is owned by Danny Maguire, who’s no arts patron. Oh, he’ll admit that theaters and museums can improve a desolate neighborhood, but he has no qualms about evicting arts groups once they’ve served their purpose in gentrifying a community.

This could be taken as a funny line, but it made this Nebraska audience go silent; these high schoolers have already learned this sad real estate fact of life. A joke about vaudeville was lost on them – guess they don’t know what it was – a catty gag about Andrew Lloyd Webber got a big laugh.

That Sonny is falling for Kira does spur jealousy in Calliope and Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. It’s not just that Hades hath no fury like two sisters scorned; the situation is a good excuse for Madison Tatum and Emma Pendleton to shine in song, which they did.

Broadway’s Jackie Hoffman forged the template for Calliope: all arms and legs, a Quasimodo-level posture and a gait that suggested her feet had been stuffed into shoes two sizes too small. Despite the glasses, horrible make-up and wan hair-do that Pendleton sported, we could see that she was actually a pretty girl. Take note of Barnhardt-Roberson’s decision: a glamorous girl in a homely part gets additional laughs.

Jackson Wieland was swell as Sonny who’s written as dim-witted to make everyone in the audience feel more intelligent. If the old saw is true that a performer must be very smart to play a very stupid character, then Wieland should go to the head of the class. He symbolically lobotomized his brain each time he said such lines as “Don’t harsh my mellow” and “Righteous!” -- the word that in the ‘80s expressed approval and excitement before “Awesome!” supplanted it.

Jackson Wieland as Sonny in Pine Creek High School's Production of Xanadu at the 2015 International Thespian Festival (Photo © R. Bruhn)


Justin Inman certainly understood that Terpsicore, the Muse of Dance, has been written as a stereotypically gay man. He hyperactively and constantly touched his hair to make certain it met his high standards of beauty. Inman also reveled in such trademark gay gestures as putting his right hand over his head, snapping his fingers once, quickly moving his hand to the left and under his heart to snap once again before moving it to the right again -- this time at waist level -- to snap one last time. Your most out-there boys will do just fine with this role.

Over the years, many claim that in those Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, she deserved more credit than he because she was required to do her dancing backwards and in high heels. The same could be said for Graf, who had to do the same -- and on roller skates, yet.  (Credit where it’s due, Wieland did a bit of backwards skating himself).

Don’t underestimate some of the show’s other demands. Your Danny Maguire should tap; here’s hoping that he can do it as well as Noah Sullivan did here. Your Kira’s singing prowess should include the ability to scat; Graf certainly could.

Beane’s script makes a joke about cast doubling, and it got a laugh of recognition from many in the house who’ve played multiple roles. Xanadu is no different; it asks its Thalia to also play a Cyclops and its Terpsicore a Centaur. Rose in Gypsy claimed that her daughter Louise didn’t have it so bad because she was playing the front of the horse, not the back. How does the kid feel who brings up the rear of a Centaur?

In Funny Girl, Fanny Brice assures prospective employer Eddie Ryan that she can roller skate – only to reveal in the next scene that she cannot. No Xanadu director should be as naïve when casting. Tryouts should include time for singing, dancing, acting AND skating.

At the curtain call, all those skills were called into play. During the title song, everyone crossed his arms above his head to make an “X.” Of course it represented Xanadu, but it also could be interpreted as  “X” marks the spot for a most entertaining show.

You may e-mail Peter at pfilichia@aol.com. Check out his weekly column each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com, Tuesday at www.masterworksbroadway.com and Friday at www.kritzerland.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.