Grand Theatre's 'Xanadu' casts '80s kitsch into admirable magic
With references to Don McLean, Brut cologne and Fresca and inside jokes about Andrew Lloyd Webber and a template built from the 1980 cult film starring Olivia Newton-John, "Xanadu" is the last musical on earth to take itself seriously.
That's not to say it isn't a serious challenge for even the best, most professional of musical theater casts. It requires a unicorn dropped from the sky, a skilled and heartfelt knowledge of '80s-era album-oriented rock and more logistical challenges than most sane actors and directors would rather deal with.
Think otherwise? You try skating backward in a pair of roller skates, all while speaking in an Australian accent, or hitting the high notes in the Electric Light Orchestra's "Strange Magic" with a bevy of chiffon togas in your face.
When Jeff Lynne and John Farrar's "Xanadu" hit Broadway in 2007, it was praised as a frothy concoction that let audiences have fun at the theater once more. Not that musicals were never fun, mind you. Only that this story of Sonny's quest to open a roller-disco, aided by a Greek goddess who changes her name from Clio to Kira and her accent from flat American to chirpy Australian, had critics giddy with the kind of thrill that usually comes from riding a giant soap bubble after a full day's diet of cotton candy. Never mind the threats of Zeus, who forbids Clio to fall in love with a mortal.
"Xanadu" is frivolous fun, all right. But like all musicals it can't help but impart a larger message, even if it's laced with ironic giggles left, right and center. The chief problem is that, similar to musicals such as "American Idiot" and "Rock of Ages," the story line feels cramped by a set of songs that existed long before someone wrote the musical. The result? Songs, the key ingredient of any musical, don't originate from the story itself to fortify the whole. Instead, they hold it together like glue and staples.
Grand Theatre's production doesn't surmount this inherent flaw, which is impossible anyway. Instead, director Jim Christian and crew take the best alternative route. They celebrate the show's irony and full-strength kitsch.
It's evident from the get-go, when Sean Bishop first enters the stage in cut-offs, striped tube socks and a bandana. It's evident every time the ensemble revels in the freak show that is the Greek chorus. And it's evident in how the cast delivers a script that can't quite decide if it's outlandish, earnest or both.
Sometimes this celebratory mood goes too far, cramping the irony and mock homage to the musical's source material. Like comedy itself, irony is better delivered straight than with a knowing wink. From music to singing and choreography, lots of things go incredibly right with Grand Theatre's production. A delivery that lets the show's irony breathe naturally isn't one of them.
Ashley Gardner Carlson imparts her dual characters of Clio and Kira with brio and fine singing, but never quite nails the harder task of persuading us she's smitten with Sonny.
Bishop, with a gee-whiz tilt toward his character that rarely switches gears, isn't always a help.
In a show as silly as this, where destiny is fulfilled by leg warmers and a Greek goddess on roller skates, that's no tragedy. It's not always the full vision of "Xanadu" itself, either.
P Grand Theatre's tale of Sonny's quest for a roller-disco is great fun, but the leads lack the sort of chemistry that makes all the irony sparkle. Still, if you're old enough to remember 1980, Olivia Newton-John or even the Coleridge poem, it's worth a night out.
When • May 10-26, 7:30 p.m. with select Saturday matinees 2 p.m.
Where • The Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State St., Salt Lake City
Info • $10-$24. Call 801-957-3322 or visit http://www.the-grand.org for more information.
Running time • One hour and 50 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.