Saturday, May 31, 2008

A skate-ly pleasure-dome

When word first got out about the Broadway-bound musical Xanadu, the press invariably approached the story by asking, "A musical based on this flop movie? Are they crazy?!" Even the most casual observer of Broadway can see what an empty question that is (successes have been made from far less promising source material), but it was the obvious lede for the story, I guess. That angle never interested me, because I knew nothing about the film; I'm not sure I'd even heard of it before word started spreading about the musical. Then I read a number of interviews in which Douglas Carter Beane and other members of the creative team talked about the liberties they were taking with the musical, and again I wondered, Why are they assuming I've seen this movie? Why assume I know anything about it? Isn't that what made it a "flop" -- the fact that nobody saw it?

Anyway, because I knew nothing about the movie, I didn't pay much attention to the musical either. But I heard good things about it once it opened, and then, in the course of recapping Lipstick Jungle, I discovered Kerry Butler's genius. The Best Musical Tony nomination cinched it: I needed to see Xanadu before June 15. So off I went this week to the Helen Hayes.

Considering the movie was completely unknown to me, I was surprised to find I knew many of the songs in the score. "I didn't realize 'Evil Woman' came from Xanadu!" I thought, as I watched. "I didn't know 'Have You Never Been Mellow' came from that movie!" Well, that's because, actually, they didn't. Throwing in those and other ELO/Olivia Newton-John hits was one of the best decisions the creative team made, because they're some of the most enjoyable numbers in the show. (It's also a good reason to buy the Broadway cast recording instead of the movie soundtrack, if you're like me and you can't get the music out of your head.) But the songs that are in the movie are pretty great, too, and I was surprised to find I knew them: "All Over the World," "Suddenly," "I'm Alive." What's not to love?

The very best decision the creative team made was casting Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson in the lead roles. Jackson's oversized hunkiness and his deceptively expressive face make him a dominating presence, in spite of his underwritten, inert character, the dopey artistic visionary Sonny Malone. Jackson cuts an appealing figure on roller skates, but he really blows you away with his unbelievably gorgeous singing voice, all the more surprising because the character doesn't sing at all until long after he's introduced. He might steal the show if he weren't paired with Kerry Butler, who is as lovely as ONJ and sings with the same seemingly effortless beauty, but tops the original by being absolutely hilarious. Giving an extremely disciplined yet appealingly loose performance, Butler manages to make every single line of dialogue funny, and sometimes she's funny when she's not even speaking. The rest of the show -- silly, fun, competent, but far from disciplined -- seems flaccid by comparison.

The book is often funny, and at 90 intermissionless minutes, the show doesn't outstay its welcome. But it feels oddly unsure of itself, and although it aspires to be "camp," it doesn't quite have the courage to take itself as seriously as real camp requires. The constant winking at the audience undercuts the fun -- the show keeps making nervous jabs at 1980s culture when it ought to be reveling in the those very embarrassments, the artistic excesses that make it worth seeing. The real delight of Xanadu, besides the outsized talent of the two leads, is discovering the undeniable appeal of that cheesy ELO/ONJ score, and the book would do better to stop apologizing for its own existence. The down-to-earthness of the proceedings also works against the literally celestial climactic scene, during which the energy slowly leaks out of the theatre. In the end, with its shabby production values (one ugly set, few costume changes, glowsticks for the finale) and small-house intimacy (the Helen Hayes is so tiny that even a mezzanine seat got me close enough to notice that one cast member forgot to wear sunscreen on her day off), Xanadu evokes a different kind of "camp" -- the sleepover kind. You're likely to feel like you're watching the counselors putting on a show at the end of the summer. Very talented counselors, to be sure, and the show they're putting on is a load of fun. But for $110+ for an orchestra seat, you could be excused for expecting something a touch more professional.

Fun fact: I happened to attend the performance that was taped for the NYPL archives. I'm a part of history! Unfortunately, so did a group of rowdy friends-of-the-show, who literally applauded even the feeblest punch lines and generally pissed off everyone else in the mezzanine. So, future researchers, if you notice the audience reactions are a bit off? Thank the soccer hooligans who showed up on May 29. Also: I notice that the "ticket tips" on the show's website -- which sort of adorably attempt to give the impression that tickets for this show are difficult to get -- recommend that you "Check upstairs: The mezzanine has some of the best seats in the house. You'll get a great view (and great sound)." Well, they're right about the view; you won't be able to see Sonny's "chalk" mural, but everything else is plenty visible. However, the whole show sounded like it was being performed underwater. I have to assume it's better in the orchestra, though maybe not much. Maybe it sounds decent from the onstage seats?

And this probably goes without saying, but: "Have You Never Been Mellow?" is one of my all-time favorite song titles.

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