By Jenn McKee
In the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to reveal, before critiquing Meadow Brook Theatre’s new production of “Xanadu,” that in 1980, a certain 9-year-old girl – ahem – fell wildly, stupidly in love with the much-maligned movie flop of the same name.
I had the movie poster in my room; clipped and saved articles about Olivia Newton-John; wrote “Xanadu” all over my textbook covers; and listened to the soundtrack until the cassette died from overuse.
So when the stage musical version of “Xanadu” opened on Broadway in 2007, I dragged my trusting friends to a performance during a trip to New York. And though none of my gal pals shared my knowledge and love of the original movie, we all had a blast.
Why? Because whether you earnestly loved the original movie or loved how awful it was, or never saw it at all, the stage musical is built with the sole purpose of entertaining you – and so it does. With an affectionate and sharply witty book by Douglas Carter Beane (of “The Little Dog Laughed” and “As Bees in Honey Drown” fame), “Xanadu” miraculously made what seemed like a sure-to-fail premise a goofy, irresistible good time. If you loved the movie, it doesn’t make you feel stupid for loving it, but rather gently mocks the things that are ludicrous about “Xanadu” while fully, ebulliently celebrating the things that are still great – namely, the music.
With music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, the soundtrack is packed with not only the movie’s string of ELO and Olivia Newton-John hits – “Magic,” “Suddenly,” “Xanadu,” “I’m Alive,” “All Over the World” – but also a couple of additional songs from these artists’ catalog (“Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” from ELO, “Have You Never Been Mellow” from ONJ). Though the songs are undeniably of their era, they nonetheless still have the seductive allure of pop music ear candy.
Plus, in Meadow Brook’s production, David Havasi (Sonny) and Allison Hunt (Clio/Kira), along with the rest of the cast, get to comically exaggerate the vocal tics and pretensions of the original performers, which adds an extra layer of fun to the proceedings.
The story, such as it is, focuses on a struggling artist (Sonny) in Venice Beach in 1981, and the Greek muse (Clio/Kira) that inspires him to, um, open a roller disco. With Kira’s help, Sonny quickly finds the right venue, but the building’s rich landlord, Danny Maguire (Paul Hopper), is more intrigued by Kira’s uncanny resemblance to his own muse of long ago than he is in Sonny’s proposition. Meanwhile, Kira’s jealous oldest sister, Melpomene (Jennifer George), hatches a scheme with her sidekick sister Calliope (Lisa Lauren Smith) to make Kira fall in love with Sonny, against father Zeus’ rules.
Sound weird? It is – particularly if you have no previous experience with the movie. But “weird” can be good; and in this case, it is.
Travis Walter directs Meadow Brook’s production with a whimsical sense of love for this loopy material, as well as for the original Broadway production; for Kristen Gribbin’s scenic design – with six on-stage, curved benches for audience members, bisected by a ramp and a set of steps, and an oval, checker-board floor – hews fairly closely to the look of the original, with music director Daniel Feyer’s solid four-piece band at stage right.
Costume designer Liz Moore gets to be a bit more adventurous, offering eye-catching outfits for the Sirens; brightly colored, drape-sleeved, flowy outfits for the muses; and some famous figures from Greek mythology. Only Moore’s dresses for a harmonizing female trio featured in “Dancin” gave me pause. Reid G. Johnson’s lighting design creates the perfect mood and atmosphere, and Marcus R. White’s choreography, while initially predictable, seemed more exuberantly expressive as the show progressed.
Part of the issue is that not all cast members are created equal, in terms of dancing abilities, so some of the performers’ movements looked a bit tentative on opening night. To some degree, this will likely improve throughout the run (as will a few nervous moments on roller skates in the final number). And some of the show’s more subtle jokes didn’t land on opening night, indicating that cast members may need to emphasize them a bit more.
But the vocals are by and large terrific, as is much of the acting. Hunt and Hopper have great appeal and skill (and they seem to be having a ball, too); Eric Gutman (Terpiscore) provides a couple of hilarious moments; and Smith and George revel in their characters’ villainy while serving up some killer vocals.
But perhaps the most winning, captivating performance on opening night came from Havasi, whose Sonny is earnest and ditzy, but genuinely likable nonetheless.
In fact, “Xanadu” itself is a lot like Sonny: hilarious, charming, and guaranteed to leave you smiling.
See “Xanadu” Wednesday-Sunday through June 17. Tickets are $30-$39.
For more visit EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters.