Reviewed by David Spencer
First of all, I guess, you have to abandon the why of it. Why do a stage version of a pop-rock film musical fantasy from the 80s that was a notorious flop? The only answer that makes any sense is: Because it's there.
(What do I think about that? Hang in.)
An icon of awfulness, having achieved a kind of so-bad-it's-delirious cult-status not dissimilar to Plan Nine from Outer Space, the film Xanadu offers nothing to a theatrical creative team except a target as defenseless as a guinea pig in an Ecuador eatery. Yet for some that's quite enough, and so, mercilessly (though with a certain degree of giddy affection) librettist Douglas Carter Beane and director Christopher Ashley have taken it upon themselves to lock, load and fire—their ammo a good deal of self-referential humor (the dialogue keeps commenting on the story's own goofiness), a tacit (and yet not so tacit) gay-camp sensibility, and those perfectly terrible-but-catchy songs by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar.
(My general opinion of the enterprise? Not yet.)
Ashley has trod the camp and nostalgia boards often before, with uneven results, but Xanadu represents his imprimatur at its most effective and entertaining. Given the combination of Beane's almost pysychotically irreverent adaptation and a very sharp comic ensemble, Ashley manages a rare balance (rare at times even for him) in which the camp and kitsch are over-the-top but not labored, in which the humor is loud and aggressive but not forced. It's difficult to assess exactly why the elements mesh, beyond the freak alchemy of the right people in the right room with the right warped passion for the "wrong" material—but part of it may lie, as I say, in his casting of performers who, no matter how much they nudge, wink and mug, maintain a certain...ahh, God, reality certainly isn't the word, surreality is too glib and verisimilitude isn't anywhere in the room...but let's call it integrity of archetype. Like the kind of prime nuthousing you find in a first-rate Mel Brooks movie such as Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles. They all get the joke and know how to deliver it.
In this modern-day fantasy of Greek gods and mortals, the gestalt travels from the ingˇnue stylings of Kerry Butler as a supernatural muse, Cheyenne Jackson as the slow-witted skateboard hero she inspires, Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman as less-benign muses who take it upon themselves to curse the cute couple, through all the supporting players—and finds what is perhaps its quintessence in Tony Roberts, playing the dual role of a corporate financier and a James Mason-tinged great god Zeus. I don't mean to say that Roberts is the heart of the show—that would be Ms. Butler and Mr. Jackson—but he is, as ever, the master of the easy comic lob, and the decision to cast him in the first place bespeaks a hip awareness of how useful such understatement is as a way of anchoring all the madness around it.
(So, this is, like, a rave review, right? Read on.)
It also doesn't hurt that Xanadu has assiduously emphasized low budget virtues (it's playing in Broadway's smallest, most intimate house, the Helen Hayes), in contrast to the megabux film, so it's quite clear from the beginning that the game is on, and what the game will be. And all the elements are in dizzy collusion, among them musical direction and arrangements (Eric Stern), gag and cliche costumes (David Zinn), cheap scenery (David Gallo) and shameless choreography (Allison Bibicoff).
All this acknowledged—
(Here it comes:)
I don't believe every musical has to be useful, meaningful or even (openly) experimental—nor even that a musical can't just be fun—but I do sort of feel that musical theatre and its practitioners ought to be doing something better with their time, with the venue, with the opportunity to get on, than exploiting a bad movie for its self-evident parody points. I just don't think because it's there or its cousin because we can is a worthy enough reason. Even because it's there and I love it falls short, because the best you can hope for is to transform unintentional camp into extravagantly aware camp. Though done this well, itÕs no small transformation.
Then again with this kind of material, Because if we do it right we will make lots of money, can't be underestimated. And while, speaking as an audience member and critic, I'm indifferent—as a theatre professional, I can't fault that part of the motivation. Or the result, at least the one I saw the night I attended: a packed house where the audience had a ball.
And you know the old saying: One man's Xanadu...