Archive Review: Xanadu

From July 2007:

In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that as a theater director, I have myself actively wanted to adapt the movie musical Xanadu to the stage for a long time. So when I first heard that a production was in the works, to be directed by Christopher Ashley with a book by Douglas Carter Beane, my heart momentarily sank. Seconds later, however, I realized that, if it wasn’t going to be me who brought this cult classic to the stage, there really wasn’t a better choice than Beane and Ashley to do it.

Happily, the clever, hilarious and joyously light confection on stage at the Helen Hayes Theater has borne out that intuition. Sure, the original movie had tons of leaden dialogue and was shot with all the imagination and skill of an old newsreel. But the musical score (which produced five top 40 hits, including the chart-topping “Magic”) was deliriously lively and inventive, often quite beautiful in a pop-rocky way.

Also, the underlying idea – a heavenly muse inspires a young artist to realize his dreams by creating the titular nightlife utopia – had loads of potential, and the design and choreography of the film for the most part reflected the vibrant inspiration of the score. Beane has written a marvelously witty book that weaves comic gold out of the film’s tale of forbidden love between a mortal and an immortal. Further, Beane’s thematic preoccupation with the life-giving power of creativity is obviously deeply felt and, to me anyway, deeply touching.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that this Xanadu is also deeply, deeply gay! Let’s just start with the Sonny, the young artist, played by Cheyenne Jackson, a gorgeous mountain of an out gay man. Costume designer David Zinn has done us all a huge favor by costuming Jackson in the skimpiest of costumes, consisting of cut-off jeans that display Jackson’s stunning legs to their best effect (only to be bested by even skimpier satin shorts in the finale – when injured James Carpinello resumes playing the role, his twinkier form should inspire another subset of gay men).

Jackson also sings the Jeff Lynne and John Farrar songs with breathtaking power and emotion, as does Kerry Butler, who recreates the role of muse Kira made famous by Olivia Newton-John with great good humor and endless energy. Top-flight comediennes Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa look like they’re having the time of their lives playing Kira’s jealous sisters (Calliope and Melpomene respectively), and when they’re having fun, you can bet the audience is having twice as much. I seriously “heart” this version of Xanadu and everybody involved with it!

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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