Xanadu, Book by Douglas Carter Beane, Music and Lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. Directed by John Saunders. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"This is like children's theater for 40 year old gay people."
Leanne Smith as Kira an d Patton Chandler as Sonny Malone; photo: Barbara Peduzzi
Self-parody rules the day in the musical, Xanadu, which closes the summer season at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY. Not that the American musical needs much self-parody. At this point almost any production could qualify from "The Sound of Music" to "Hairspray" to "The Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder." Each in its own way takes apart the form and puts it back together again to make points, elicit laughs and touch the heartstrings. "Xanadu" may not be the musical equal of any of those shows, but as parody goes, it does what's expected: it dissects the format, fills the holes with fun music and lyrics, and just plain entertains. Add to that mix very talented people, throw in some of the silliest bits of dialogue and add a smashing band; then put all of this in the hands of a very talented director who knows the genre and how to expose its best and worst qualities and you end up with the most enjoyable show I've seen in a while. It's so good, in fact, that I recommend the theater company hold on to it and open its 2016 season with it, just so we can all see it again, laugh our heads off and exit the theater dancing into late spring.
The story is simple (or simple-minded): The Muse (one of the nine muses) Clio comes to earth disguised as an Australian roller-skater named Kira to inspire Sonny Malone, an absolute dope - though cute as a button. She falls in love with him, which is forbidden, and surrenders herself to Zeus for punishment. However, like Orpheus in the Underworld, Sonny pursues her to Mt. Olympus (from Venice Beach, CA) and true love wins the day. Everybody gets their Xanadu (too difficult to explain, but really simple actually).
This 2007 Broadway hit, based on the 1980 film musical flop that inspired the Golden Raspberry Awards, is being played by a charming cast of nine, many of whom double in different roles while the leads always play themselves (although Clio pretends to be Kira who pretends to be Australian). Clio/Kira is played here by the endearing Leanne Smith whose personality and singing voice afford her the most congenial relationship with the role. Smith is the realization of the "pert, pretty and petite" title. She has zest and zing, can sing and is best at making the unbelievable acceptable. She also roller skates more than admirably. As Clio she is bent on "bringing your dreams alive" as she sings the hit song "Magic." Smith is delicious in this show, and it is partly her performance that keeps the show lively and enjoyable.
She has estimable assistance from her co-star, Patton Chandler, as the adorable if ignorable Sonny. Not bright, but very sweet, Sonny even has difficulty associating emotions with reality. As played by Chandler he is darn sweet and delectably ditsy. He plays an artist whose art is smarter than its creator which makes him the perfect dupe for a vagrant Muse with a mission. Chandler has a lovely singing voice and a winning personality and if his character were dumber he would probably just be more adorable and less ignorable. He maintains a fine balance in this show and the end result is finding in his Sonny a new kind of champion for all that is right in this world.
On the villainous side of things we have two find ladies playing two fine Muses who would be fined by the insolence police if any existed. Melpomene, played by Monica M. Wemitt, and Calliope, played by Rhnea Wright Ausmus, put a curse on their sister Clio and bring about her near demise with a constant sense of glee. It is a treat and a half watching these two tiptoe, chortle, cluck and meander their way through the plot of this show. "Evil Woman" and "Fool" are near show-stoppers in their musical hands. Wemitt looks gorgeous and then contorts her features to look both menacing and maniacal. Ausmus has a permanent look of confusion that she negates with her actions. Both women sing magnificently in both solos and duets.
Rhnea Wright Ausmus as Calliope and Monica M. Wemitt as Melpomene; photo: Barbara Peduzzi
Colin Pritchard as Zeus; photo: Barbara Peduzzi
As the sister muses Thalia and Terpsichore Conor Fallon and Ryan Gregory Thurman have such a convincingly good time that when they assume reasonable male roles they seem to be en travestie. Libby Bruno as Erato and Maggie Randolph as Euterpe are equally delightful. All four show up in other roles throughout the play including major goddesses, mythic beings and pop singers of the 1940s and 1980s. The incidental chorus of this musical they have a sensational time as typical pop-music back-up singers, another parody of style and substance - their words are sometimes funnier than their gestures.
As presenter Danny Maguire Colin Pritchard has a wonderfully rich role to play. Just like in Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's musical "One Touch of Venus" ( a favorite musical that I wish this company would produce some day) he plays an older man who was once inspired by a muse who is brought to mind by Kira/Clio. Pritchard is genuinely touching in his brief reminiscences of her and later in the show, when playing Zeus, he is equally majestic in his mild relenting when it comes to destroying all that Clio has created. Pritchard has a field day with these roles, even though they are much lighter and subtler than those of his four co-stars.
John Saunders continues to amaze me with his personal sense of humor and the many ways he finds to expose it through the work of other actors. With this show he has perhaps shown us one smart-aleck sensibility too many, but I don't care and he certainly shouldn't. His choices keep us laughing - out loud, by the way and not in those discreet chuckles we're used to - and rooting for a happy ending. He is abetted by a fine team of designers: Andrew Gmoser on the lights, Kevin Gleason with the sets, Allison Hearn's silly costumes and David Tankersly providing excellent if properly awkward choreography and roller-skating patterns. Josh D. Smith commanded fine performances from his pit band players.
All in all this is among the best shows of the season throughout the region. It's a short run so try to get it in quickly or you'll miss one of the best bad evenings of theater you are ever likely to see. Hey, with any luck and any influence from a write-in audience, maybe they will bring it back in the spring. I'd go again.
Xanadu plays through September 20 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre, 1925 State Route 203 in Chatham, NY. For tickets and information call 518-392-9292 or go on line at www.machaydntheatre.org.