July 11, 2007

Unamused by "Xanadu"

Nobody loves a jukebox musical more than my sister but when I called to ask her if she wanted to see Xanadu, she turned me down flat. "No way," she said. "I'm not going to see some dumb musical based on some dumb movie." I hope she doesn't regret her decision. For Xanadu, based on the legendary 1980 movie flop in which Olivia Newton-John plays one of the nine Greek Muses who comes to earth to inspire a Venice Beach artist as he fulfills his dream of opening, of all things, a roller disco is shaping up to be the Jersey Boys of this young Broadway season, a show patched together from old pop songs that critics went into the theater with teeth bared and ready to hate but came out with nearly all adoring smiles.

I bribed my niece Jennifer to go with me by treating her to a pre-show dinner at the Broadway hangout Angus McIndoe. She was in a good mood going into the Helen Hayes Theatre after having dined on Angus's terrific version of mussels and frites but about 10 minutes into the show, I caught her giving me the evil eye. "This isn't good," she hissed. But the show has no intermission so she was trapped. To my surprise, and hers, less than 90 minutes later, Xanadu had won her over. In fact, it seems to have won everyone over. The audience at our performance mouthed the words to the songs, laughed uproariously at self-referential lines like "The theater? They'll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter's catalog, throw it on a stage and call it a show" and leapt to its feet almost as one at the end. The critics were seduced too. "Heaven on Wheels" purred the Times; "By Zeus! Xanadu is happy to a-muse" chirped the Daily News. Well, it didn't amuse me.

But I do admire how smart it is. The show seems to have found a way to wed the mass appeal of Mamma Mia! with the insider snob appeal of The Drowsy Chaperone. And who am I to complain about the ability to cater to two such powerful and often disparate revenue streams. Kerry Butler, a peppy, talented and game blonde (she has a way with a joke, belts out a song and rollerblades like she was born on wheels) is terrific as the Muse and as her protégé, Cheyenne Jackson, a last minute replacement for James Carpinello who had a skating accident a few days before the original opening, is not only great eye candy but has a great singing voice and great comic timing. But the true star of this production is its book writer Douglas Carter Beane, hot off the showbiz-savvy satire, The Little Dog Laughed. Beane has not only created a quip-laden, high-camp script for the show ("This is like children's theater for 40-year-old gay people") but a backstage narrative for himself that he's been spinning everywhere and that details how he refused to take the job when he was first approached because he considered the source material tripe but eventually relented once assured that he could remake the stage version in his own image. It's the kind of story that entertainment editors love; in fact, Entertainment Weekly did a whole pre-opening feature on the show and when is the last time that magazine paid such attention to Broadway?

I did laugh and I did appreciate the scenery-chewing antics of Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa and the deft staging of director Christopher Ashley and choreographer Dan Knechtges. But I also found myself feeling a kinship with some of the audience members who bought the cheap seats that landed them in the onstage pews. This is becoming an increasingly common practice; Inherit the Wind and Spring Awakening have bleachers on their stages too. A couple of the guys on the stage at Xanadu had clearly come to this show only because the movie was a guilty pleasure of their wife's or the tickets were the only ones left when they got to TKTS. The sat with frozen smiles on their faces, knowing they were supposed to be having a good time but not really having it. "We're Muses of inspiration. What are we doing in a theater?,""goes one wink-wink line in the show. Call me an unhappy camper but that's what I want to know.

1 comment:

Ainsley said...

I love Olivia Newton-John! Nice blog!