By Patrick O’Brien
Some cult films have it easier than others when it comes time for the musical treatment. They may be beholden to very specific, instantly recognizable design choices, or perhaps an array of snappy one-liners that just cry out for song-ification.
In translating Xanadu for the Broadway stage, playwright Douglas Carter Beane was only beholden to its silliness, its deep and boundless silliness. That’s what they might call carte blanche.
And thus, the intimate quarters of the American Theatre Company have become Xanadu’s new temple, in tribute to Paparelli; Lili-Anne Brown serves as its commanding high priestess/director. If you’ve been baptized already, you will partake and you will enjoy. For the uninitiated? Well, just grab on to the roller-skating conga line, and you might just give in to its strange magic.
Specifically for the uninitiated: 1980’s Xanadu starred Olivia Newton-John as a neon-lit ancient Greek muse who inspires a painter from Venice—in California, folks—to open a roller disco. They fall in love to a soundtrack by Electric Light Orchestra. Also, Gene Kelly was in it, doing his Gene Kelly thing. It got weird from there. And it opened just as disco died. For its troubles, the film was nominated for the first Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture. (It lost to another deeply and boundlessly stupid disco musical, the heterosexualized Village People biopic Can’t Stop the Music.)
Is Xanadu indeed so bad it’s good? Relentlessly silly, yes. Aged poorly, yes. Treats its featherweight cliches like great profundities, oh, yes, and Beane makes a lot of fun out of tackling the logistical improbabilities that sprout like weeds in any “art over commerce” or “follow your dreams” narrative.
Most pragmatically, how does penniless artist Sonny Malone (Jim DeSelm) secure a hunk of prime California real estate for his roller disco fantasy, then renovate it in one afternoon, then open to instant sell-out crowds? Why, he has the help of the Greek muses—led by Clio (Landree Fleming)—who can do everything to inspire Sonny, but are expressly forbidden from creating anything, never mind falling in love with mortals.
(Why a roller disco? Beane’s answer: They’re making the best of their situation, having taken a wrong temporal turn to a different eighties than where they were headed.)
Complications (that don’t last, but hey, it’s part of the fun) include former musician-turned-real estate mogul Danny McGuire (Aaron Holland), who not only controls the vacant auditorium, but swears he’s seen someone exactly like Kira before; and two other muses, Melpomene (Karla L Beard) and Calliope (Missy Aguilar), who decide to throw many a wrench and many an incantation into Clio and Sonny’s path because…well, they’re evil women. (Cue you-know-which-song. Disco may be dead, but Jeff Lynne and John Farrar’s songs are immortally groovy, and Aaron Benham and his merry band keep ‘em coming.)
And from the first pulse of “I’m Alive,” the ensemble is fully thus. Especially Fleming, a boundless comedy dynamo; she skates, she taps, she puts on a delotfully terriboo Australlian ecksent. But she also manages something akin to affection in an endlessly camp musical, when she—in direct defiance of Olympian law—twiddles with an Etch-a-Sketch; her results are laughable, but “it’s there.”
DeSelm is delightfully dim and hunky, and Holland comes through as the lone gruff voice of reason. (Holland’s past self, ensemble member Daniel Spagnulo, taps like a bat out of Tartarus.) And, suffice to say, Beard and Aguilar actually chew the scenery. And the audience eats it up, because it’s children’’s theatre for 40-year-old gay men. (Their words.)
Walking in, if the unicorns and rainbows in the lobby don’t set the tone for you, the observations about Arnel Sanciaco’s set will: The stage is a freakin’ roller rink. With galactic flooring. And ultraviolet highlights. You know you’re in for something unique, for sure. Not easy to pull off, considering the roster of cult films that have been musicalized, and there have been very strange choices.
But like the best of those adaptations, Beane has a true affection for the material, or else he wouldn’t have been able to add such a message about finding art wherever you can find it—even if it takes some digging to find in a desolate cultural wasteland. That’s a message that late Chicago theater staple PJ Papparelli, a Xanadu cultist, no doubt upheld, and would be proud to see mounted in his tribute.
So bad it’s good, to genuinely enjoyable. A breakthrough even we non-Muses can appreciate.
The American Theatre Company presents “Xanadu” through July 17 at the American Theatre Company, 1909 W Byron St, Chicago. Performances run from Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm. Single tickets ($48-58) and student tickets ($15 with valid ID) are available by calling (773) 409-4125 or online here. Photos by Michael Brosilow.