Xanadu Is Campy Fun, But Frequently Falters

By Sharon Falduto
Photos by Jackie Blake Jensen Photography

Victoria Vaughn as Clio; Skylar Matthias as Sonny

Coralville – Nostalgia for the recent past is big business, as musicals like Mamma Mia! have shown. Xanadu mines a similar vein for an audience who wants to reminisce about its youth, and maybe cringe a little along the way.

Xanadu is a labor of love for director Chris Okiishi. He admits to book problems in his director’s note, but tells us how he went to the movie five times in its opening week anyway. His love for the high concept musical shows in the details, but I fear his adoration may have blinded him to some of its weaknesses. Fortunately, the show is, if nothing else, a lot of fun.

Xanadu is based on the 1980 movie of the same name, the Olivia Newton-John vehicle that bombed at the box office and was resurrected as a cult classic. It was adapted to a Broadway musical in 2007, no doubt following the success of 2002’s B-movie-turned-hit-show Hairspray. The book of this musical was written by Douglas Carter Beane, screenwriter of the drag-camp movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. The music and lyrics are courtesy of Jeff Lynne, “of the Electric Light Orchestra,” the program helpfully tells us, and John Farrar, whom the cover of the program credits with Grease’s ballad “Hopelessly Devoted to You.” Xanadu the musical aims to both poke gentle fun at the original movie and elevate its story to Broadway worthy levels. It succeeds as a joke, not so much as a show.

The concept of the show is that the Greek muses decide to come to the mortal realm in 1980 California to inspire down-and-out sidewalk chalk artist Sonny Malone. The muses emerge from behind the kitschy “sidewalk chalk” banners that Sonny has painted. The set is beautifully simple but evocative; with Doric columns and sky high banners representing Sonny’s mural. The muses emerge from behind the banners and dance to the song “I’m Alive,” accompanied by fun choreography, echoing the styles of ancient Grecian urns.

(l-r) Elizabeth Stam, Lisa Beal, Ben Alley

The leader of the muses is the youngest sister, Clio (pronounced CLY-oh), who intends to travel to the mortal realm and inspire Sonny Malone to greatness. In order to blend in with the 1980 setting, she will wear leg warmers and roller skates, and she will adopt an Australian accent! Why the accent would help her “blend in” in 1980 Venice, California, isn’t explained within the story. This, of course, is a wink to Ms. Newton-John’s starring role.

So, as “Kira,” Clio inspires Sonny to open a roller disco—how he got from “sidewalk chalk artist” to “roller disco mogul” isn’t explained, but that’s okay. After all, this musical does take place during the brief time period, roughly 1979-1981, in which “opening a roller disco” seemed like a viable idea. Some of Clio/Kira’s sisters are not pleased that she, the youngest of the muses, seems to have the favor of their father, Zeus. So, they conspire to curse her into committing the sin of “falling in love with a mortal.”

A vocal highlight of Xanadu is the duet on ELO’s “Evil Woman.” It is one of the most recognizable songs in the show, sung powerfully by Melpomene (Jessica Wittman) and accompanied campily by “sister” Calliope (Christopher Carpenter) as they plot Clio’s downfall. These two really know what show they’re in, and they over-belt and air guitar their evil little hearts out in this number. Wittman and Carpenter are the comic backbone of the show, even if they aren’t the muses of comedy. Carpenter got a lot of home town laughs in his portrayal of Calliope, and even more guffaws with his over-the-top portrayal of Aphrodite later in the show.

The reasons why two of the muse sisters are played by men are never explained. Ben Alley is the other, a spritely Terpsichore, leaping through scenes with glee and a light foot. He also plays the pivotal role of Hermes, messenger of Zeus, in a small but outstanding moment of comedy.

Rounding out the muses are Lisa Beal as Erato, Rebecca Ogilvie as Euterpe, and Elizabeth Stam as Thalia, the muse of comedy. The show really sparkles when all of the muses are on stage, acting either as individuals or as Greek chorus. They light up each scene with wit and fill the stage with light and movement. It would have been fun to see them do more with their various callings; one rhyme from the muse of poetry was not enough, and I wish Stam’s Thalia would have had more funny business; making a few faces and lifting up her dress constitute pretty low humor—could she have maybe juggled some rubber chickens?

The costume team of Jean Grewe, Bethany Horning, Jackie Allen, Mary Jo Harken, and Paige Harken simply illustrate the time, both the Grecian togas and the 1980 short shorts. Each muse wears a toga in a distinct color, although designed to blend and match—especially the purple and lavender robes worn by conniving Melpomene and Calliope.

The central problem with Xanadu is that the audience can’t quite figure out why anyone, let alone a muse like Clio, would fall for a lunkhead like Sonny Malone. Every one of his lines indicates that the character lacks any depth or understanding. In spite of a great will-they-or-won’t-they dance set to “Strange Magic,” the chemistry between Victoria Vaughn’s Clio and Skyler Matthias’ Sonny Malone never really clicks. I’ve enjoyed Victoria Vaughn in a number of local performances, from Penny in “Hairspray” to Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man.” She’s got a great voice but I’m not sure this was the role for her. Many of her laugh lines didn’t quite land, like the pronunciation of her “mortal” name, Kira, which was always uttered with an over exaggerated first syllable and a downbeat second syllable: KEEE-ra. Her singing was beautiful, of course. Her roller skating was, unfortunately, a little awkward. Her lack of skating prowess could have worked for a character who is meant to be an immortal goddess, not a roller-skating human, but I think she was supposed to be a pro. Skyler Matthias as Sonny Malone, unfortunately, did not have a lot to work with. His character is meant to straddle the line between the high camp concept of the show and the earnest love story at its heart, but he stood too firmly on the side of camp to make his falling for Kira seem truly believable.

Josh Sazon as Danny

Clio/Kira/Kitty seemed to fit much better with Josh Sazon’s Danny Maguire—the man who built the now empty amphitheatre. It turns out—and this may be a bit of a spoiler, but this isn’t really a show that suffers from plot-related spoilers—that in the 1940s Clio was Danny Maguire’s muse, too! She inspired him to build the very space, which he named the Xanadu Theatre, where Sonny intends to open his roller disco. Danny’s flashback sequence is one of the true whiz bang elements of the show, when featured player Cory Wilfong wows us with some amazing tap dancing. Kind of odd that it wasn’t Terpsichore, the muse of dance, who inspired him but hey, she isn’t the star of the show. Josh Sazon stands out as Danny. He’s got just the right mix of evil villain and aged man homesick for his wasted youth. The audience can’t help but laugh when he does, head thrown back in amusement at his own jokes. He’s a lot more fun than Sonny, even if he is a bit long in the tooth for our ageless muse. He is also double cast Zeus, powerful but fun as he spars with goddesses and other mythic creatures about Clio’s fate. (It was a pleasure to see The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe’s centaur costume in use again)

Some of the dialogue was a bit tone deaf for 1980; back then we weren’t using the phrase “true dat.” The songs make the show seem more like an Electric Light Orchestra tribute concert than a musical, and they mostly seem to be shoe-horned in. If you didn’t know the songs from listening to classic rock stations, you won’t leave the theater singing them now. I took two fifth graders with me on Friday night and asked them on Saturday to name one song from the show; neither of them could. This isn’t the fault of the music or the musicians—live musicians, who did a great job with what is, in my opinion, one of the worst eras of modern music.

Unfortunately, the supporting cast of the show did not have the strength to hold up the campy concept. The rotating stable of sirens/dancers/sailors/etc. should have been the hilarious highlight of their scenes, but their pacing was off. Many of these were high school kids, and I wondered if perhaps they didn’t have enough time to rehearse—their movements seemed wooden and out of touch with the tone of the show. One scene that had the potential for greatness—a mashup of 1940s swing band and 1980s punk rock—fell flat because the dancing was just not great. It may have been intentional to have the 1940s dancers have grace and poise and the 1980s dancers be clumsy, but unfortunately the effect did not quite gel.

For all its faults, you can’t help but smile and enjoy the fun of this show. It’s fun to play along with the concept, and we’re invited in from the very beginning by Matthias’s Sonny greeting the audience, as opposed to the usual “Please no flash photography” announcement. Some audience members even have a chance to be a true part of the action, as on stage seats are auctioned off for each performance.

Xanadu is a good time. The acting is fun, and the singing is mostly great. It was excellent to see Sonny’s roller disco opened with some actual roller stars—the girls of the local skate clubs the Old Capitol City Roller Girls and the Cedar Rapids Roller Girls doing some fun tricks and creating nifty choreography on their wheels.

All musicals require a suspension of disbelief, of course. People do not generally advance the plots of their lives through melody. Xanadu requires more suspension than most. But if you like your musicals full of camp, light on drama, and heavy with allusions to movies from the early 1980s, this is the show for you. City Circle Acting Company’s production of Xanadu runs four more performances: Sun 10/12 & 10/19 at 2 p.m. and Fri 10/17 & Sat 10/18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets available here.

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