Friday, June 1, 2012

SpeakEasy rolls out Xanadu

At its best, Xanadu is highly a-musing; Photos: Craig Bailey

Once upon a time - perhaps as late as, say, 1980 - every English major in the Western world (and most college graduates) knew that "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure-dome decree."  But today, for most 'liberal arts' majors (and we use that term advisedly), not only that line, but its entire, famously-unfinished source (not to mention its author!) is unknown; in the popular consciousness,  Xanadu refers not to a pleasure-dome, but to the notorious roller-disco-musical which Joel Silver and a slew of other producers unleashed on the world in 1980, in the process knocking Olivia Newton-John's booming film career right off its skates.

Xanadu - which I half-watched on cable many moons ago - actually has several dubious claims to fame beyond its nearly nonsensical plot (something about the Greek muses coming to earth to help open said roller rink).  The movie also derailed the renewed interest in big-budget musicals that tracked the success of Grease and Saturday Night Fever (which is kind of a musical); it also, rather sadly, showcased Gene Kelly's last turn on the silver screen.

And anyone who has seen it can tell you the movie deserves its rap as one of the worst musicals EVAH - not because it's so dumb (Grease is almost as dumb), nor because its songs are particularly bad (in fact its soundtrack, powered by the synth bombast of Electric Light Orchestra, was a big hit).  No, Xanadu was just made badly.  The script is klutzy, the cinematography indifferent, and the choreography almost bizarrely clueless (below).  It's a shining testament to the the sheer craft of more competent moviemakers, who can position and sculpt similarly weak material so deftly that it's palatable, even entertaining.

The cluelessly choreographed climax of Xanadu - don't miss the tightrope walkers!

Now - are you thinking what I'm thinking?  Cheesy but campy concept, a roster of pre-made hits: can you say gay juke-box musical?  Well, Douglas Carter Beane, the mastermind of The Little Dog Laughed and other Hollywood-Babylon baubles, certainly could.  In 2007 Beane repositioned the script for Broadway as an elaborate in-joke, with its central trope being its self-awareness of its status as the movie moment when pop culture jumped the shark, as the 70's pleasure-dome collapsed of its own weight before the Reagan revolution.  For what it's worth, Beane also pulled another 80's clunker, Clash of the Titans, into the mix - on which he actually relies for more plot points, it seems to me, than he does Xanadu.  (Although the distinction is really neither here nor there; both movies targeted the pleasure centers of the reptilian brain coiled within the human one, and both pretty much blew it.)

Beane's re-tooled Xanadu proved a solid hit in New York - but does impressing Ben Brantley or Charles Isherwood really count for much anymore?  Sorry, I don't think so.  I mean isn't the whole gay-theatre-for-straights thang itself a little campily dreadful at this point, and just waiting for its own meta-Douglas-Carter-Beane treatment by some wicked-smart hetero?

Which one's actually channeling Olivia?
Well, be that as it may - let's not push the self-conscious cultural meter any further along than we have to; but there's still an obvious problem rolling around in Xanadu - and that's Xanadu itself.  Beane does dodge its trudging storyline much of the time, but he can't skate past it entirely; it's still there, and you have to find a way to make it fun.

And the current SpeakEasy Stage production is some testament to just how hard that really is to do.  The company has pulled out all the stops this time around; they've reconfigured the Roberts Studio to accommodate a roller rink, and blown the budget on glamorously tacky costumes that look just right - they even hand out glow-sticks to everybody.  And the results are amusing, but never quite transporting.  It's hard to put your finger on precisely why this is so, but surely director Paul Daigneault's artistic signature has something to do with it; there's a kind of gently knowing control strategy, an unspoken commitment to deferred gratification, about his style that simply short-circuits the sexy stupidity of Xanadu.

Star McCaela Donovan almost personifies the problem.  This talented and lovely lady is a mainstay of the local scene, and for good reason - she nails every aspect of this tricky part, singing her heart out, roller-skating like a pro, and even pulling off a wicked Australian accent.  But she doesn't seem to be having all that much fun; with every entrance she lobs a chunk of glitter into the air, but somehow the gesture seems too ironically off-hand; you can always see her mind turning, and frankly, she shouldn't have a mind at all.  As her numbskull boyfriend, "Sonny Malone," the hunky Ryan Overberg (at right, with Donovan) has more the right idea (he channels Newton-John's dumb sparkle better than Donovan does), but there's only so much he can do in a role that's essentially reactive.  And surprisingly, for once the usually-reliable Robert Saoud doesn't get much loft in the Gene Kelly part, either.

Clash of the comic titans: Shana Dirik and Kathy St. George
Luckily, the supporting cast makes hilarious hay of the Clash of the Titans half of the show, where adaptor Beane has squirreled away the best of his bitchy quips.  The great Shana Dirik and Kathy St. George are probably the two funniest ladies in the city, and they go for broke here (at one point St. George literally locks her molars on the set), and whenever they're onstage, Xanadu suddenly does glitter with campy malice. And this dastardly duo gets strong back-up from castmates Kami Rushell Smith, Val Sullivan, Patrick Connolly, and Cheo Bourne, who have lots to do - and do it all well - but only occasionally get to bask in the spotlight.

David Connolly's choreography, meanwhile, is better than the movie's (it had to be), but perhaps - as was the case in last year's Drowsy Chaperone - it lacked its own distinctive profile.  As for the familiar songs - well, they lose something essential, I'm afraid, when stripped of the overdubbed churn of Jeff Lynne's original production; and you can't help but notice that the chorus of some of them ("I'm Alive," "Evil Woman," "Xanadu")  is really just the title repeated over and over.  Still, they're better than most of what you hear on Broadway these days, and the onstage band proved tight and punchy, effortlessly supporting Dirik and St. George's groove with "Evil Woman," and Donovan's sweet warble in "Have You Never Been Mellow?" And at such moments, the Roberts Studio suddenly did feel like a pleasure-dome - okay maybe not a stately one, but then could you really wave a glow stick in the air with Samuel Taylor Coleridge?

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