“A million lights are dancing and there you are—a shooting star…” entices the familiar theme, so dust off your roller skates, pump up the volume on your ‘boom box’ and head on out to the acclaimed “Laguna Playhouse” in Laguna Beach California, as they conclude their phenomenal 100th Anniversary season by presenting “Xanadu”—the uproarious stage adaptation of (and also, in many ways, a downright improvement on,) the 1980 musical Blockbuster (emphasis on the ‘buster’) that starred starring Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton John. A Musical-Comedy-Romance that wholeheartedly puts the “Comedy” front and center, “Xanadu”, is a glistening and thoroughly entertaining musical featuring a book by Douglas Carter Beane, with music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar–whose ‘double-platinum’ score retains all of the hits from the movie, among them such now-venerated standards as “I’m Alive”, “Magic”, “All Over The World”, and (of course) “Xanadu”. For anyone born before 1985, these are bound to read like a Billboard Hot 100 playlist of the era. Moreover, their score includes new arrangements of “I’m Alive”, “Magic”, “Suddenly”, and “Dancing”, on top of integrating two of the “Electric Light Orchestra’s” chart-toppers: “Strange Magic” and “The Evil Woman”, plus the surprise inclusion of Farrar’s time-honored, “Have You Never Been Mellow” (One of Newton-John’s earliest Number One chart-toppers in the U.S.) This new production is Directed & Choreographed by Paula Hammons Sloan, with Musical Direction by Ricky Pope.
A two-time 2008 “Tony Award” nominee (including for “Best Musical”) and the “Drama Desk” Award winner for “Outstanding Book Of A Musical” for Beane, “Xanadu” stands as that kind of rare musical that has a big heart, an even bigger funny bone, and a tongue stuck firmly in its cheek, (especially when referencing its original cinematic source material.) Although The 1980 motion picture on which this stage version is based (Kelly’s very last big-screen musical) wasn’t exactly what you’d call a box-office success–barely recouping its production budget, the soundtrack was, and has remained, an enduring commercial sensation, with several of its songs scoring huge on the top-ten Billboard charts ‘back in the day’. Over time, this failed ‘disasterpiece’ has even become something of a cult masterpiece! What’s more, in view of Ms. Newton-John’s recent passing, how gratifying to consider that she was on hand to witness the belated triumph of this stage re-imagining. Carter-Beane has also interpolated numerous improvements for the stage—adding several new elements that enhance the story immensely (–and which many agree, had they been included in that filmic original, it probably would have done far better in the course of its initial run.) A prime example of such an ‘enhancement’ occurs with the tune “Suddenly”, a lilting light-hearted love song played as a passing melody on the soundtrack when our hero “Sonny” and heroine “Kira” first enter the old theater that will eventually become their nascent ‘roller disco’ nightspot. Exploring the space, they ‘just happen’ to find an old record player (with—what else? An LP with Olivia Newton John crooning that exact same selection.) Here instead, the number has been judiciously incorporated into the narrative, with the pair singing it together as they go off to meet “Danny Maguire”–their soon-to-be benefactor. Configured this way on stage makes far better sense, giving it a distinct purpose. (That said, such is the case with numerous other ‘improvements’ this stage musical holds over its Hollywood counterpart.) Topping that is how Beane’s libretto continually riffs on and satirizes the photoplay’s conventions and reputation—not to mention those of the early 1980’s in general, making for some big belly-laughs at every turn. Some of the jokes–such as those about the state of Downtown LA–may have even greater resonance NOW than when Carter-Beane initially wrote them. There’s even one ‘did-you-catch-that” throwaway line “Maguire” mentions about the theater “Sonny” and “Kira” want to turn into their “Xanadu” being an old firetrap, cryptically referring to the “Pan Pacific Auditorium” which served as the exterior of the club in the 1980 film. Once a bona-fide LA landmark, it had fallen into shocking disrepair by the time the picture was shot, only later to genuinely be destroyed in a somewhat suspicious fire. Beane’s script is overflowing with such shrewd little ‘inside’ jokes and asides. So if you have seen the original celluloid rendering and are judging this musical by that–forget it! This stage reworking is an entirely different (and wholly superior) entity: This is everything that is fun and exciting about live musical theater!
With so much charm and humor—what more could you ask for? “Xanadu” follows “Clio”, the beautiful and beguiling (if precocious,) Greek muse who, upon popping out of a street mural along with her ‘sister muses”, decides to don her roller skates and legwarmers (to say nothing of speaking with an Australian accent) to go ‘undercover’ as “Kira”, in order to help and inspire “Sonny Malone”, the chalk artist who concocted the mural. “Sonny” may not be the brightest bulb on the marquee, but he does have a heart of gold, and with “Kira’s” help and determination, he rediscovers his artistic vision and maybe even finds love in the process. With both help and hindrance from the other muses (—two primarily, named “Melpomene” and “Calliope”, who have anything but the young couple’s best interests in mind,) and from a clarinetist-turned-real estate mogul named “Danny Maguire”, “Sonny” and “Kira” work to build their “apex of the arts,” –something the world in 1980 practically couldn’t do without: A Roller Disco! (Well, when you get right down to it, it is a period-piece!) Director Sloan streamlines the action, and her pacing and insights steadfastly keep the focus on the performers, and the numbers they’re performing, allowing all the external ‘technical’ elements (colorful as they are) to serve the performances–not distract or overwhelm them. She has also wisely opted to tell the story in TWO acts as opposed to the single-sans-intermission format used in the original Broadway production. There’s an awful lot of story to tell in this one, with much of the doings (including musical numbers) unfolding in a fairly rapid span of time. This can risk getting a little overwhelming, so including an intermission was positively the smart way to go. It also helps that she’s got a first-rate troupe of triple-threat actors to work with. Although this may be a smaller cast in terms of ensembles, fortunately she does have her squad of ‘muses’, which here, are something like a “Post-Mycenean” ‘drill team’. As a theatrical device, this works very well for the show, and Ms. Sloan utilizes all of her cast very effectively—bringing them on to provide vocal strength or support whenever needed as well as endowing numerous numbers with often brief, but always polished, dancing all the way through.
When it comes to her choreography, Ms. Sloan doesn’t simply shine, she beams brighter than a lighthouse! In fact, it’s safe to say this is one of the most enjoyable elements of the goings-on. Peppering the antics with quick, smaller dance sections—or even just some simple steps (often performed in unison by the cast) this tactic goes a long way in adding verve and vitality to a show that, practically from its very inception, it overflows with! Indeed, at first glance, the numbers might not seem like there are many truly ‘big’ choreographic ‘extravaganzas”—but that’s partially due to having most of the dancers move in unison (or carry out the same kinds of movements.) Taken as a whole though, many of these segments categorically do rise to the level of musical ‘spectacular’—due substantially to the pristine way the cast carry out each exchange—large or small. The opening, “I’m Alive”, (as ‘the muses’ come to life and emerge from the mural on which they’ve been drawn,) is swift—literally occurring in a flash. Their dance that follows is saturated with loads of lively maneuvers, keeping each kinetic phrase fluid, but jivey, while including lots of whirling and twirling, which culminates in a merry little round-de-lay (not unlike in the original film.) “All Over The World” is another A-plus group endeavor—not quite ballet, but more cultivated than a ‘modern’ piece. Either way, it’s particularly riveting to watch (the company even stands shoulder-to-shoulder and performs ‘a wave’ before they’re done!) Halfway through the first act, (once “Sonny” and “Danny” agree on a partnership to make “The Xanadu Club” a reality,) it becomes apparent each has their own ideas as to what kinds of entertainment it should accommodate. This occasions another full-cast undertaking, called “Dancing”. On screen this was a humongous exploit involving TWO sizeable groups of dancers and set in two very different decades—the 1940’s and the 1980’s, before they intermingle into one enormous collective. Taking this into account, this lofty ‘concept’ could have provided the production with one of its biggest conundrums: how to keep it fittingly ‘big’ in light of the more modest-sized cast. Thrillingly though, Ms. Sloan and her company have proven to be more than up to this challenge—and in the process, accomplish one of the more exhilarating sequences in the entire production. Spectacle aside, Sloan has also found ways to embed dance into the smaller numbers like “The Evil Woman”, which initiates as a duet between “Melpomene” and “Calliope”, but quickly expands into full “production number” status once Melpomene’s ‘daughters’, the infamous “Sirens” of yore (—each garbed in black—) jump in to engage in a nifty ‘fan dance’ around their ‘mother’ and ‘aunt’, joining them in “Meanspirited Melody”. (Judging for the audience’s enthusiastic response, count this an absolute crowd-pleaser!) Then, in Act Two, for Sonny’s solo, “I’ll Take The Fall”, she has her dancers ‘back him up’ by demonstrating some smooth, balletic pirouettes and piqué turns, thus giving the number a heightened visual elegance which underscores and intensifies his lyrics. In the end, the closing, titular number, “Xanadu”, is everything a true musical theater lover could hope it would be—and more! I mean, how many other ‘Grand Finale’s” consist of the full-cast on roller skates? It’s playful, fun, and kaleidoscopic (plus, the song is just as exuberant as you remembered it!) Even the curtain calls are performed on skates—ending with several cycles around the stage as the audience is showered with a cascade of pink and white balloons making everything still more festive–were that possible!
Kristen Daniels gives a ‘tour-de-force’ performance as “Clio” (later known as “Kira”.) The driving influence behind just about all what transpires, she’s on-stage the vast majority of the time, (and when she’s not, she’s making an expedited costume change.) Hers is a cherubic muse—more akin to Sandy Duncan than Olivia Newton John, but the formidable voice and comedic acting chops are there regardless. She keeps the adventure humming practically from start to finish. Immediately following her preliminary verses during “I’m Alive”, Daniels strikes gold with her introductory ‘solo’—the iconic “Magic” (arguably the score’s most famous composition having made it to the number one single on the Billboard charts for four weeks!) Partly satire, but always sublime, she flawlessly delivers the goods with this, the song many are bound to have more revered expectations of, insomuch as it’s so well known. She also excels dispatching songs with a more frenetic pace as with the second act’s “Fool”—another spirited interlude, as “Kira”, having tried to reveal her true identity (and purpose) to “Sonny”, finds that not only doesn’t he believe her, he may think her a bit touched in the head! (It’s a nice contrast to all of those slow, seductive songs “Kira” was given back in the inaugural half.) Yet, her definitive intermezzo arises with “Suspended In Time”, wherein she tugs at our hearts all over again as “Kira” essentially ‘floats’ across the stage while seated on a cloud. (Then, once “Sonny” adds his voice to hers, this immediately becomes a major-league, blue-ribbon duet for the two of them—and an indisputable audience favorite!) Even her stanzas in the midst of “Have You Never Been Mellow” (as more and more ‘mythological creatures” saunter on) is the all-out comic highlight in a show packed full of them! Before they’re through, she introduces and marshal’s the renowned title number, while completely on skates, sending the “Wow” quotient this one boasts into the stratosphere! Joining her as the hapless “Sonny Malone”, Dorian Quinn exhibits a likeable boy-next-door charisma (as the portrayal calls for,) while also displaying a versatile style to his singing, which enables him to go from softly stroking the heartstrings to belting it out to the backrow, the way many of the songs that comprise the score require him to do. Such is the case with his verse which kicks off “Suddenly”. It begins benignly enough before escalating into an energetic duet with Ms. Daniels that has him going into the song’s ‘bridge’ by giving over with some magnificent ‘money-notes’ that are stunning to hear. At the opening performance several younger audience members even seemed a bit fascinated that the number encompasses an authentic-looking phone booth which, drifts slowly across the stage (My, how times HAVE changed!) Shortly after, he amazes all over again with the potency he infuses into his verses of “All Over The World” (which itself quickly expands into a brilliant and highly energetic group affair once ‘the muses’ arrive to ‘help’ “Sonny” and “Kira” pull-together their dream-enterprise-with less than a day to spare!) Quinn really takes the spotlight though, with his part in deploying the gnarly 1980’s ‘punk rock’ half of the duet: “Lover, I Won’t Take A Back Seat Tonight,” (as it’s contrasted against the ‘big-band 1940’s roof-raiser, “Forget About Your Blues Tonight”.) Immediately following, he triumphs once more leading the surprisingly touching “Don’t Walk Away”, right before the Act Break, giving the closing refrain incredible vivacity and prominence. Post intermission, he also succeeds with his second act “solo” (backed by the muses,) “I’ll Take The Fall”, reaffirming just how adept he is at conveying more ‘serious’ emotions through song.
As their patron and business partner “Danny Maguire”, Jonathan Van Dyke admittedly has some pretty big shoes to fill (this was after all, the role Gene Kelly played in his very last movie musical.) Then again, what makes Van Dyke’s performance so exceptional is that he doesn’t try to emulate anybody, instead making “Danny” entirely his own creation. (“Malone and Maguire, eh?” he tells “Sonny” when they meet at the outset; “We sound like a Vaudeville team!”) Adding to it is how Van Dyke is definitely a commanding presence on-stage when it comes to both his singing and acting abilities, as he soundly demonstrates here! Graced with an affable “Pop-Rock” song styling, this suits the overall tone of the music markedly well, making his performance all the more effective. His smooth-as-velvet turn with “Whenever You’re Away From Me” is a pleasure to hear, while his more introspective ‘second verse’ contribution to “Don’t Walk Away” further cements the number’s impact and relevancy into the plot (something it was lamentably missing in the silver-screen fiasco.) Just prior to the show’s conclusion, he also garners a torrent of giggles and guffaws with “King Zeus’s” unanticipated, (and dramatically over-the-top) counter-obbligato verses amid “Have You Never Been Mellow” (“Let Ovid and Homer take note: I AM mellow!” he asserts.) Subsequently, in the finale, he even demonstrates some fine skating acuity to boot! Meanwhile, wicked and witty support is furnished by Judy Mina-Ballard as “Melpomene” the dominant ‘Villain’ in our story. Gifted with a prodigious voice and a practiced talent for putting over a song, she validates her vocal prowess right off the bat with her verses of ‘I’m Alive”, before contributing to the success of other musical outings like “Strange Magic” (as these wayward muses cast a love spell on their unsuspecting sister—not merely causing her to fall in love with “Sonny” but—gasp—to also try her hand at actually creating art! Both strictly verboten activities for a muse.) Right up there with her is Michelle Bendetti as “Calliope”—the second of our jealous, scheming muses. Sporting oversized horn-rim glasses, she is the comic counterpart of “Melpomene”, but she manages to stand out in what could too easily be a secondary role. Instead, she superbly plays off Ms. Ballard, as much as Ms. Ballard superbly plays off her, making for some sumptuously side-splitting teamwork! Working in concert with one another they each sparkle in Act One imparting the more over-the-top elements of the numbers their characters have been assigned. Prior to “Strange Magic”, there is their deviously delectable dual effort, “The Evil Woman” in which they bestow their share of hilarity while never over playing or short-shifting the song of the rocking ‘musicality’ it fully deserves.
Not to be overlooked either is Featured Dancer Alec Mittenthal, who also impresses as “Young Danny”. Although he amazes as a dancer all through the various escapades, Mittenthal only appears under this guise once as part of “Whenever You’re Away From Me” (staged as a flashback) but he makes an indelible mark through it in particular, supplying an electrifying tap solo after hopping up on a nearby desktop! (He even does the splits at one point!) Later, paired with lithe and lovely Ellery Smith as his partner—and both splayed in glitzy lamé costumes–they perform a dynamic ‘disco’ dance solo centerstage at the height of the titular “Xanadu” that’s worthy–and even reminiscent of–the old ‘80’s program, “Dance Fever” (prepare to have your jaw dropped by the time they’re through!) Of course, ALL of the muses (male and female) standout valiantly at one time or another. In addition to Daniels, Bendetti, Mina-Ballard, Mittenthal and Smith, they also include Daniella Castoria, AJ Love, Erika Harper and Patrick Murray. The show wouldn’t be nearly as astonishing were it not for their combined skills and hard work.
Technically, the most fitting way to describe all the supporting design elements is “refined simplicity”, with dashes of cool, “fantasyland-like” trimmings thrown in for good measure (one reason “pink” seems to be a predominant motif here.) The vibrant, pastel lighting by Lighting Designer Clifford Spurlock isn’t as reliant on special effects or projections as the Broadway original was, but instead integrates a bevy of bright colors—from piercing oranges and yellows, to sultry blues and greens (—and yes, with plenty of hot pink too!) Then there’s the ‘shocking’ red light with which he bathes the stage in the thick of “The Evil Woman”, or the electric green haze he paints the new-wave portion of “Dancing” on one side of the stage, with the 1940’s ‘Swing’ portion on the other swathed in purple. Risky? Maybe—but it nonetheless works remarkably well! On opening night, Ushers even handed out glowsticks (such as those spied at rock concerts) to audience members to better fill the auditorium with a plethora of color at key intervals. The lighting plays well against Set Designer Chris Strangfeld’s stately ivory-marble column set, augmented by several majestic, silky, draped curtains at the back which serves as the backdrop for many locations. Similarly worth noting are the on-the-money costume choices the cast wear which cunningly contrast several different eras from “World War II chic” to “80’s new-wave mod” (including Kira’s omnipresent Legwarmers,) with an abundance of late 1970’s disco dazzle, over and above some classical Greco-Roman splendor. Even the most outlandish (like the Centaur up on Mount Olympus) hit their targets—often opulently so!
“Music and lyrics, and dancing and a funny story…” Kira asserts early on, “Our father always said, put ‘em together and you have yourself a musical comedy!” (“–and they call it ‘Xanadu’!”) At equal turns, whimsical, wacky and always wonderful, “come join them where the land embraces the sea” (A.K.A. in Laguna Beach!) Having opened on Sunday August 7th, “Xanadu” will play through Sunday, August 21st, 2022 at “The Laguna Playhouse” located at 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, in Laguna Beach, CA. Showtimes are Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30 PM; Saturdays at 2:00 PM & 7:30 PM; Sundays at 1:00 PM & 5:30 PM. There will be an added performance on Thursday, August 18 at 2:00 PM, with no performance on Wednesday, August 17th. Tickets may be obtained online at www.lagunaplayhouse.com or by calling (949) 497-ARTS (2787). (Group discounts are available by calling 949-497-2787 ext. 229.) The theater box-office is open Mondays through Saturdays: 12:00 PM. until 4:00 PM; Sundays, 2 hours prior to show time until 15 minutes after curtain. Open until showtime on all other performance days.
Production Stills by Matthew Saville, Courtesy of David Elzer at “Demand PR” (www.demandpr.com) and “The Laguna Playhouse” in Laguna Beach CA. (www.lagunaplayhouse.com) Special Thanks to Paula Hammons Sloan, Ricky Pope, Gail Anderson & David Elzer, as well as the “Amazing Staff of the Laguna Playhouse”–and to the cast and crew of “The Laguna Playhouse’s” 2022 Production of “Xanadu” for making this story possible.