I have never seen the 1980 film Xanadu and I doubt many (if any) reading this review have. Critics liken it to a wrecking ball that destroyed Olivia Newton-John’s post-Grease career — the Gigli of the 1980s. Nor am I old enough to remember hearing the sounds of the British symphonic-rock band Electric Light Orchestra playing over the radio.
Those two facts aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the stage adaptation of Xanadu, now playing at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place. Xanadu was a “surprise hit” when it debuted on July 10, 2007 at Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre. The show garnered critical acclaim and a handful of awards and nominations during its 14-month run.
This production of the show played San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse last fall before opening in Chicago on Jan. 28. Tickets are currently on sale through May 3 with a full national tour scheduled to begin this fall. The show could stick around for a longer run in the Second City, however, if the demand for tickets remains high.
Xanadu tells the story of one of Zeus’s nine daughters, Clio, and her quest to inspire a frustrated Californian beach bum “artist” and help him realize his dream of opening a roller disco. As a muse, Clio must abide by two simple rules or risk eternal damnation: never create art and never fall in love with a mortal. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what happens next.
The show works because it doesn’t take itself seriously. It recognizes the flaws associated with adapting movies into musicals, and embraces them. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane has crafted a book that pokes fun at everything from Greek mythology to the questionable fashion choices of the ’80s (you’ll gain a new appreciation for cut-off shorts and leg warmers).
The score, a creation of Jeff Lynne (of the ELO) and John Farrar (the creative force behind Newton-John’s pop career), boasts hits such as “I Am Alive,” “Magic” and “Don’t Walk Away.” Even if you didn’t know them before, good luck getting them out of your head once the show is over (I still haven’t).
The production is perfectly suited for the 549-seat Drury Lane Theatre. Set design is minimalistic (save for the many, many disco balls) but rows of on-stage seats give the actors more to play off of than most lavish sets seen on Broadway today. On-stage seats are great for the budget conscious (tickets are only $25) but be aware that you’ll miss a bit of the action and possibly become the subject of a few jokes as well (all in good fun of course — and the glow stick should more than make up for it).
Elizabeth Stanley (who starred in Broadway’s Cry Baby and Company) is arguably the heart of the show in the lead role. She dons a hilarious Australian accent once the demigoddess Clio descends to earth as the mortal, Kira. She has a belting voice, which easily fills the theater, and perfect comedic timing (and roller skating ability) for a show as campy as Xanadu. Opposite Stanley, Max von Essen (Broadway’s Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar) is believable as the naïve, tube-sock-wearing Sonny. Their chemistry shines during the song “Suddenly” — an over-the-top ballad that mocks every melodramatic romantic moment in musical theater history, even as it becomes one itself.
The supporting cast provides many of the show’s funniest moments as they adopt multiple roles. Larry Marshall is great as real estate mogul Danny Maguire (portrayed by Gene Kelly in the film) who sacrificed love of art for the love of money. Sharon Wilkins and Joanna Glushak delight with their portrayals of Clio’s jealous older sisters, Melpomene and Calliope. Chicagoland native Julius Thomas III stands out among the ensemble members as a show-stopping tap dancer, centaur and messenger to the Gods, Hermes.
My one complaint about the show concerns the sound levels: lyrics were drowned out by music from the band several times during the performance, and a few notes left my ears ringing.
At one point during the show Clio asks her fellow sisters, “You know when something is so grand and so earnest, yet ultimately so preposterous one has to laugh? What does one call that?” Anyone who knows a thing about Broadway musicals will get a laugh out of her sister Erato’s answer. But the same could be said for the show itself. Xanadu is a fabulous 90-minute escape from reality and perfect remedy for the Winter Quarter blues.
Xanadu is currently playing at the Drury Lane Theatre at Water Tower, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago. Tickets run $25 to $87.50 and can be purchased by visiting www.BroadwayInChicago.com or calling the Broadway In Chicago ticket line at (312) 902-1400.