Connecting with the Cheerfully Cheesy “Xanadu”

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McCaela Donovan and Ryan Overberg, Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Xanadu, book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, Speakeasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts, 5/11/12-6/9/12, http://www.speakeasystage.com/doc.php?section=showpage&page=xanadu.

Reviewed by Gillian Daniels

Xanadu, the 1980 film featuring Olivia Newton John and music by the Electric Light Orchestra, is well known for being a critical flop.  The chief crime of this cinematic musical, however, is in creating entertainment that doesn’t connect with its audience.  After all, it’s a movie about disco released a year after the genre died a largely un-mourned death.  I’m hard pressed to find a better image of disconnection than that.

In being brought to the stage, Xanadu has finally found its correct medium.  The show not only finds its audience but winks at it furiously throughout the course of the story.It’s hard to take a Greek muse (McCaela Donovan) seriously when she dons roller skates and legwarmers and heads to Earth to inspire a dense artist (Ryan Overberg) to build a roller disco.  So the production doesn’t even try.

Instead, Xanadu laughs at its naive characters while simultaneously endearing them to viewers.  The show regularly breaks the third wall to point out the silliness of its trappings and its contrived set-ups.  In the process, it comes out the other side a smart, triumphant, and even inspiring musical.

Donovan’s Clio, the muse, skates around the theater as a beacon of good cheer. In her persona, nostalgia for Olivia Newton John runs thick.  It feels completely believable that she would ignite the passions of Sonny, who Ryan Overberg plays as a dimwitted but sweet soul.  Their love is encouraged to dark ends by Melpomene (Shana Dirik), the enjoyably evil villain.  Her motivations are murky, but in a way that wouldn’t be caught dead confusing itself for serious drama, Melpomene’s hazy goals fit right in with the rest of the show.

The movie’s original music is nice to hear in this new format, maybe even for fans who dislike jukebox musicals.  Some songs, though, don’t quite work against the tide of time.  “Evil Woman,” in being used in so many movie soundtracks since its inception, has become a trite representation of villainy that even a charismatic cast can’t breath new life into.  Audiences that associate the music with a period of time rather than a film are more likely to be on the same page.

As for the rest of the show, it’s very difficult to find anything amiss when every actors seems to be having so much fun.  Xanadu is proof that live theater remains the best, most successful home for the musical.  True face-to-face audience interaction keeps the story light and fun, connecting deeply with those lucky enough to see it.

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