Theater Review: XANADU (San Diego Musical Theatre)

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by Milo Shapiro on May 15, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


Playwrights of musicals have frequently, with varying degrees of success, taken a successful non-musical movie and worked it into a staged musical. Billy Elliott, Waitress, and Mean Girls are among many movies given a whole new life on stage through song and dance. What makes 1980s’ Xanadu a very different case, however, is that the movie pretty much bombed.

Universal cancelled press screenings, reviews were overwhelmingly negative, and it was a commercial flop. Despite many production issues, co-star Olivia Newton-John summed up the biggest issue well: “The main trouble was the script. We had so many story changes during filming.” In fact, Xanadu and the almost-delightfully dreadful Can’t Stop the Music were the two films that inspired the Razzies Awards, which salute the worst films of each year.

So why in God’s good name would anyone think, “Hey, we should make a musical out of this!” Well, in the years that have followed, Xanadu has developed a bit of a cult following for its bizarreness and its 1980s kitsch; there’s something about hotties in the short shorts, high socks, and rollerskates that makes us smile with nostalgia now. Plus, there was one indisputable positive to the movie: the soundtrack, yielding five hit songs including the third biggest Billboard hit of 1980, “Magic” by ONJ.

The story begins with Sonny Malone (Jordan Markus) creating a street art drawing of nine women and, frustrated at it not coming out right, trashing it. What he doesn’t realize is that, for reasons never quite explained, his abandoned creation opens the door to the nine muses of Zeus to come through it into 1980, yielding the first song, “I’m Alive!” One of them, Clio (Krista Feallock), the muse of history, decides she must inspire Sonny to pursue his artistic dreams. Two of her jealous muse sisters (Taylor Henderson and Wendy Waddell) decide to take her down once and for all by casting a spell on her to fall in love with the mortal, a fate that is forbidden and highly punishable by daddy Zeus.

If the summary above doesn’t match your memory of the movie, it’s with good reason: the writers of the musical’s book have made a few serious (and wise) changes. The opening of Sonny having been the one who created the art (a detail that was originally intended for the movie and then, unwisely, cut) makes it clearer than in the movie why the muses take notice of him at all. The creation of the evil sisters opens up more interesting plots and gives them reason to sing fun songs and be delightfully comic book-ish villains.

In the end, make no mistake: this storyline is only a hair better than the original. What makes it work is that both the dialogue and the purposeful overacting make it clear that it we all agree that this is a parody; had San Diego Musical Theater taken this script seriously, it would have been the death of it. What’s more, SDMT recasts two of the muses with male actors, adding a bunch of fun there. Even further, the character Danny — an older person who had loved the ageless Clio three decades earlier — has been changed from a man to a woman (Meghan O’Brien Lowery). With this change, the story sweetly alludes to a romance between the two women without heavily calling attention to how rare that would have been around 1950.

Under Jason Blitman’s direction, the cast is clearly encouraged to milk the humor out of the silliness in the script and embrace the campiness. One moment that is tremendously corny is elevated by multiple vendors for corn dogs coming out, as if to say, “Yes, we can make everything cornier.” There are many laugh-out-loud moments, with Ms Henderson and Ms. Waddle getting some of the biggest for their Ursula-esque moments.

Musically, it’s a bit varied. The opening “I’m Alive!” number fell a little flat in both energy and pitch, causing this reviewer to worry about what lay ahead. But many other numbers were spot on, with certain cast members exceling and a few who weren’t as pitch-perfect earlier, shined later. A few muses, who are clearly solid dancers throughout the show, were unfortunate to be shown in the finale to be far less comfortable on roller skates. It would have served the parody better to play that up broadly instead of trying to play it down. You can’t have a dancer who can’t dance in A Chorus Line but in this show you can have a muse who boldly can’t skate, and it would have only boosted the fun.

If you find yourself thinking a few times, “Could this hit song have been in the movie?” you’re likely right that it wasn’t. In the creators’ tribute to the time period and the expansion of the role of the sisters, other 80s songs were added to give the other muses their singing time. One unexpected ONJ song, not from the movie, yields a good laugh from those who recognize it.

In the end, both the book writer (Douglas Carter Beane) and San Diego Musical Theatre deserve credit for finding the joy in what didn’t work in 1980 to make it work today. It may not make a pig pretty to put lipstick on it, but if you’re looking for a funny pig instead of a pretty one, this lipstick might be just what Xanadu needed.

photos by Ken Jacques

San Diego Musical Theatre4650 Mercury Street in San Diego
Wed & Thurs at 7; Fri at 8; Sat and Sun; times vary each week, check first
ends on Sunday June 4, 2023for tickets, call 858.560.5740 or visit SDMT

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