"They’ll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter’s catalog, throw it onstage and call it a show," says Zeus (Yes, that Zeus) of the contemporary musical theater towards the end of "Xanadu," the musical culled from one of filmdom’s most-celebrated turkeys.
But to paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, the gods (and demigods) of the theater are smiling down on us over at the Roberts Studio theater where the SpeakEasy Stage Company is presenting the Boston premiere of this delightfully cheeky adaptation of one of filmdom’s guiltiest pleasures.
That 1980 film musical could be cited for being the last breathing pangs of a beloved genre. A double-bill of it and "Can’t Stop the Music" (released the same year) inspired the Razzie Awards (given for the worst films of a given year.) It lost to "Can’t Stop the Music," but pulled of Worst Director for Robert Greenwald.
Nevertheless, these films, plus other cheese epics like "Thank God It’s Friday," " Staying Alive" and "Roller Boogie," did as much to end the age of mile-high platform shoes, random synth musical exclamation points and glitter lip gloss as did the "Down With Disco" rally in Chicago’s Comiskey Park and, more tragically, the HIV virus.
Greenwald has gone on to a laudatory career in documentary films, and his film lived on in the successful soundtrack and, happily, in those who appreciate an Olivia Newton-John movie. One of those must be Douglas Carter Beane - one of the funniest playwrights extant. His pointed jabs at media and the celebrity culture (as well as "Auntie Mame") made both "As Bees in Honey Drown" and "The Little Dog Laughed": smart, contemporary takes on a kind of theatrical comedy that thrived for decades during the first part of the twentieth century.
Beane returns to another Broadway stand-by: the smart, fanciful musical farce that raised silliness to an art form. It’s like ’Hairspray’ on laughing gas. Or "One Touch of Venus" with a score by the Electric Light Orchestra. "This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people!," says one of the muses, demigods that come to Earth to save culture and open a roller disco.
Yes, that’s Xanadu, an abandoned Hollywood movie theater that the show’s male ingénue - a hunky, SoCal artist Sonny - wants to transform it into the apogee of culture. He’s been inspired in this quest by an Australian roller-skater Kera (actually the muse-on-a-mission Clio); but is being sabotaged by two vengeful muses (and sisters) that place a curse on Clio, causing her to fall in love with Sonny and face the unforgiving hand of Zeus.
That these Gods look like (and are referred to) as resembling characters from the original 1981 "Clash of the Titans" should tune you in on the show’s cheeky sensibility - one where other 1980s cultural references are delivered with guileless abandon. What makes "Xanadu" work so well is its high camp quotient. It’s self-reverential without being precious, and very, very funny.
It probably isn’t surprising how familiar many of the musical numbers are - like "Mamma Mia" and "Rock of Ages" depends on its audience having some memory of the pop hits that came from the film: "Magic," "Evil Woman," "Have You Ever Been Mellow?" and the title tune, most of them made famous by the beautifully earthy pipes of Newton-John, which was easily the part of the film that went down the best.
The score is by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar - two members of the ELO that augment the original score to fit Beane’s concept. The songs sound like a found mix-tape from the late 1970s and are performed in a full-bodied, pop Broadway style in the crazily ingratiating production at the SpeakEasy Stage.
Director Paul Daigneault takes a design concept from the Broadway production, which sat some of the audience on the stage to create an in-the-round effect, and takes it one step further. He places the action on three-sides of the audience (with a on-stage band on one end). It’s a smart move - making the audience feel as if they’re sitting in the roller disco and making the musical far more intimate. "Xanadu" isn’t a big show, but a smartly compact one whose contours are being well served at the SpeakEasy.
As with his recent production of "Next to Normal," Daigneault’s casting is first-rate. Take Ryan Overgerg: In his period tank-tops and Daisy Dukes, he looks great and delightfully guileless as the wannabe-artist; he sings with an appealing belt that would have made him right at home in a boy band. If he doesn’t exactly erase the career-making performance of Broadway’s Cheyenne Jackson, he brings his own stamp on the role.
McCaela Donovan, who offers a cannily funny Olivia Newton-John impersonation while bringing a lovely sense of bewilderment to this conflicted muse, nicely matches him. She has great chemistry with Overberg and sings like she’d be right at home on a episode of "Smash."
Adding considerably to the hilarity is the casting of Shana Dirik and Kathy St. George as the deceitful muses out to shanghai their sister. Both are in perfect pitch with Beane’s wisecracking script, milking their campy, over-the-top characters for every laugh possible with great success. Robert Saoud not only plays the hard-assed real estate mogul with a brusque deadpan, but also sings beautifully, adding a surprising touch. The ensemble - on and off roller-skates - are like the Solid Gold Dancers as imagined by Charles Busch, which is to say absolutely hilarious.
The design elements manage to convey the shifting locations, which include a 1940s dance hall, the renovated roller disco and even Mt. Olympus, with minimal efficiency. Especially clever is a life-size Pegasus that appears like some constructivist War Horse. Gail Astrid Buckley appears to have studied the original film (plus "Clash of the Titans") for her mix of glittery disco wear, leg warmers and togas. Lighting designer Karen Perlow bathes the production in pastel warmth and sound designer Aaron Mack provides crystal-clear miking, no small task considering how ambulatory this cast is.
"Xanadu" is a throwback to the silly shows that Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter perfected in the 1930s and 1940s - wisecracking, preposterous and ever so endearing. How Douglas Carter Beane saw the connection between that kind of show and the kitschy 1980 film musical is the secret to this stage musical’s success - never has such lunacy seemed so inspired.
"Xanadu" continues through June 9, 2012 at the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For further information, visit the SpeakEasy Stage website.