‘Xanadu’ is a tongue-in-cheek adventure
‘Xanadu’Through Dec. 31
La Jolla Playhouse
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
Clapping their hands and bobbing in their seats with toes a tapping, an enthusiastic audience of all ages got into the fun and rhythm of “Xanadu” at a recent performance of the play. The zany Tony Award-nominated roller-skating musical is making its West Coast premiere in the Mandell Weiss Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse and runs through Dec. 31.
The play, based on the 1980s cult film starring Olivia Newton-John, is an amusing mix of oddities. Sonny (Max von Essen) is a young artist in Venice Beach. He’s saddened that his latest mural seems lackluster and his dream may not come true.
Unbeknownst to him, Clio (Elizabeth Stanley), a Greek muse, has convinced her “sisters” that Sonny needs their inspiration. Calling herself Kira, and adopting a strange Australian accent, Clio appears as a mortal with pure intentions to do well by Sonny in his quest to make a roller-derby disco. The only stipulation from her ruler, Zeus (Larry Marshall), is not to fall in love. Famous last words!
The book by Douglas Carter Beane earned “Xanadu” four 2008 Tony Award nominations, six 2008 Drama Desk nominations and was the recipient of the 2008 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Broadway Musical. Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley directs the show and also directed the Broadway version. Beane and Ashley have fashioned a unique and highly entertaining play. Their success is interesting since neither were fans of the movie. Ashley called it a train wreck and Beane passed four times on the opportunity to write the play’s book.
“I loved the soundtrack,” Beane said. “But the movie was impenetrable. When a producer said ‘I’ll do whatever you want,’ I thought that was the nerviest thing anyone ever said to me. So I came out with this goofy 1980 story about an artistic, political and social world. Then after a reading, I had to change almost everything.”
Beane has a great sense of humor. He’s written many amusing plays as well as the feature film “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything.” In addition to the madcap story, the music of “Xanadu” is a real hit. The songs “Magic,” “Xanadu,” “Have You Ever Been Mellow” and others come vividly alive by the off-the-wall and highly energized cast. Sharon Wilkins and Joanna Glushak are hilarious in their rendition of “Evil Woman,” as they attempt to cast a spell on sweet Kira so she’ll fall in love with Sonny and the job of leader will be up for grabs.
An experience with Olivia Newton-John after she saw the Broadway show made an impact on Beane and the show’s music.
“Olivia felt the song (‘Suspended in Time’) was the best she ever sang,” he said. “When it was done in my show with the full orchestra, Broadway orchestration and Broadway singers, the audience cheered. Olivia came forward after the show and hugged the composer. That was a touching moment of life for me that I could vindicate something from this horrible disaster. In rehearsals for the Playhouse production, people were crying because it’s so beautiful.”
The vocal talents in the show are all top notch. Stanley is more enjoyable when not trying to sound Australian and von Essen is better when not being a meek nerd. One pleasant surprise are the songs by Larry Marshall who plays both Zeus and Danny Maquire, a man who actually had his own involvement with the fascinating Kira years before. He’s robust, heartfelt and engaging in his role.
The terrific choreography by Dan Knechtges and unusual scenic design by David Gallo, that includes audience members seated onstage, add to the frivolity of “Xanadu,” a fun show for the entire family.