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By Bridgette M. Redman
Musicals can delight us in many different ways. They can inspire, they can tickle the imagination, they can bring us to tears, they can make us want to dance, they can make us laugh.
And sometimes they can overwhelm us with memories that are so bad they’re good.
Say the word “Xanadu” to someone and they’ll often cringe. Say you’re going to see the musical and they’ll ask, “Is it better than the movie?” The most common response is, “Could it possibly be worse?”
Thankfully, Douglas Carter Beane’s stage version of the early ’80s cult classic/flop movie about a muse who inspires the creation of a roller disco realizes all of its potential by finding a way to mock, pay tribute and simply have as much fun as is possible while roller skating on stage before a live audience.
And Kurt Stamm, director and choreographer of the Mason Street Warehouse production, meticulously mined the script to its greatest effect, finding every comedic gem and ensuring the audience was invited down a musical memory lane.
Taking center stage in Venice Beach, California are Nick Dalton’s beach bum and would-be artist Sonny Malone, Gina Milo’s Clio/Kira – head sister of the Greek Muses – and David Edwards’ Danny, a sleazy real estate dealer who might still have a heart under all his money. Surrounding this trio are the hard working muses who double as sirens, mythological creatures, gods and goddesses, torch singers and rockers.
Dalton is delightful as the clueless and intellectually challenged Sonny, who is convinced that the pinnacle of all the arts can be found in the creation of a roller disco. He embodies the surfer dude who is hampered in his quest for greatness by depression and a lack of inspiration. Enter Clio, who plans to fulfill her role as a muse and inspire him to greatness, while on her own quest to achieve the mythological prize of Xanadu.
In a fun poke at the movie’s lead actress, Olivia Newton-John, Clio disguises herself as Kira and adopts an Newton-John’s Australian accent. Most of the time, Milo’s accent was more of a “Guys and Dolls”‘ Adelaide-like baby Brooklyn than Australian, but nothing was lost in the humor of it. She also plays up the ditzy blonde who is never impatient with the fumblings of her protege.
Edwards shows great range as the owner of the abandoned theater who long ago discarded his own heart in pursuit of the dollar, losing both his artistic dreams and the love of his life. Malone and Kira give him the opportunity to redeem himself, but the evil sisters, the muses of tragedy and epic ( played respectively by Trisha Rapier and Crystal Mosser) continue to seduce him with money while cursing the efforts to recreate Xanadu as a roller disco.
Rapier and Mosser cackle and literally chew the scenery as the evil women who plot the downfall of their sister by trying to get her to violate Zeus’ commands that a muse must never create art, never reveal herself as a Muse, and never, ever fall in love with a mortal. Mosser’s horn-rimmed glasses and obsession with her own breasts makes her the comedic side-kick to Rapier, whose commanding presence ensures that the path to paradise won’t be easy.
Every ensemble member was strong, bringing energy and commitment to campiness that makes sure every pop culture and retro reference is milked to maximum effect. They indulged in the late ’70s/early ’80s style of pop singing, a time when some music-lovers despaired that any inspiration was left.
“Xanadu” brings back several well-known songs from the era, including “I’m Alive,” “Evil Woman,” “Have You Never Been Mellow,” and “Xanadu.”
Patrick Coyle’s direction of the fine collection of musicians was outstanding, but the music was almost overwhelmed by Kyle McCord’s sound design. The microphones on the actors were turned up so high, the voices were sometimes painful and the contrast between their “Venice Beach” and “Mt Olympus” voices lost some of its power.
Jon Reeves’ set design was simple, but he got a workout creating the moving pieces that set each scene whether it was a twirling phone booth that danced along with the actors, a flying Pegasus or a backdrop that opened to reveal the path to Olympus and the place for the traditional theatrical sign. Jennifer Kules’ lighting provided the opening chalk mural that later morphed in a fascinating special effect when the plot demanded it. She also kept the stage awash in gobos and moving lights that cast intricate designs on the floor and pillars.
Stamm ensured that all of his actors were comfortable on skates, allowing him to choreograph numbers that raised the level of camp and impressed the audience with the sheer skill of his performers. The Greek chorus of muses made sure the sweeping stage of classical pillars were always filled with movement, action and storytelling.
Nor did Stamm hesitate to break the fourth wall and let his characters draw the audience in by letting them act as bystanders – and even inviting them to sing along.
“Xanadu” is a delightful musical that tickles the fans of the cult classic movie while co-opting those who hated it. At the Mason Street Warehouse, the show is a night of pure fun and laughter.
Mason Street Warehouse at Saugatuck Center for the Arts, 400 Culver St., Saugatuck. Tuesday – Sunday through July 14. $29-42. 269-857-2399. http://www.sc4a.org