Seen on Broadway: I can understand why good movies, like The Full Monty or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, become stage musicals. Ditto beloved cult movies like The Evil Dead, which ran Off-Broadway last season. But why Xanadu, a bad movie no really likes, not even as camp, is now at the Helen Hayes is a mystery. The other surprise is that, against overwhelming odds, it’s actually pretty good, a light summer spritz of a show that’s easy to take for 85 fast-paced minutes. The book writer, Douglas Carter Beane (of last season’s showbiz satire The Little Dog Laughed), has wisely retained only the bare outline of the wispy 1980 film, a movie career-killer for star Olivia Newton-John, and loaded the show with spiky theatrical and early Eighties-era in-jokes and something resembling character development and conflict, elements sorely lacking in the original.
The popular ELO and ONJ songs from its soundtrack have been kept and augmented, and are now connected by a plot that has muse Clio (the winsome Kerry Butler) landing in Los Angeles. Disguised as Australian roller girl Kira, she helps struggling artist Sonny (Cheyenne Jackson, star of the underrated Elvis jukebox musical All Shook Up, stepping in for James Carpinello, a casualty of the show’s skating) realize his latest dream: To build Xanadu, a stately pleasure dome for the generation’s disco rollerskaters. Cautiously lending a hand, and the required real estate, is magnate Danny Maguire (Tony Roberts, reprising Gene Kelly’s final musical role from the film), who abandoned his own muse in the 1940s. Havoc is wreaked by Clio’s jealous muse sisters, Melpomene (Mary Testa) and Calliope (Jackie Hoffman); the two actresses would gleefully chomp up all of the scenery if there more of it. It all ends up atop Mount Olympus, where the show morphs into a dead-on spoof of the somewhat better-regarded Clash of the Titans (1981), and the actors wickedly parody its slumming stars, including Laurence Olivier, Ursula Andress, and Maggie Smith.
Under the lively direction of Christopher Ashley, which sags only in the run-up to the final segment, Xanadu is high-calorie fun, not good for you in large doses but an agreeable sugar rush while it lasts. I can’t help but think, though, that David Rockwell might have been a better choice for the show’s scenic design muse than David Gallo. There’s nothing really wrong with his revue-type Greek amphitheater setting, with seating for audience members (an overdone idea that is just so 2006-2007 season), but it’s more functional than inspired, as is the array of mirror balls that descend from the ceiling, in a blaze of Howell Binkley’s flashy lighting, to suggest the realization of Sonny’s dream. More could have been done to bring this flossy cotton-candy universe to life. And much more could, and should, have been done to keep projections designer Zachary Borovay in work. As it is, a reflecting disc descends two or three times to capture Sonny’s neon scribbling on the floor, a no-impact use of the technology; the show missed a beat by not at least trying to recreate the movie’s low point, where Newton-John and wooden co-star Michael Beck turn into animated fish and swim around the ocean in a musical montage. Fortunately, costume designer David Zinn, who makes his Broadway debut, picks up the slack with his on-the-nose period and Olympian ensembles, not to mention the delightfully tacky monsters that swarm the stage as the show draws to a close. Credit is also due wig designer Charles G. LaPointe, for a parade of good and bad hair days, and the sparkling sound design of T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella that puts it all across [Scenery and scenic effects are credited to PRG Scenic Technologies, with GSD Production Services handling the lighting, Sound Associates the audio, and Scharff Weisberg the video.]
So now there is a stage version of Xanadu, and the entertainment gods are not displeased. Fears that such a production would end in folly, with all forms of the arts going into simultaneous meltdown upon its arrival, leaving only mimes standing, proved unfounded. But please, let us not tempt fate again with theatrical presentations of Can’t Stop the Music, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and other disasters from the Zircon Age of movie musicals.
Seen Off Broadway: A classic Greek myth gets an only arguably more serious makeover in the Second Stage Theatre production of Eurydice, from playwright Sarah Ruhl. Ruhl, who wrote last season’s Lincoln Center production The Clean House, is a friend to whimsy, and the 90-minute show proves a woozy cocktail of ancient storytelling, Freudian psychobabble, and contemporary anxiety. Here Eurydice (Maria Dizzia), whose affection for the dear departed father (Charles Shaw Robinson) outweighs her love of Orpheus (Joseph Parks), winds up in a watery Hades, attended by dad (who in one of many nice design touches builds her a house of string in a domain where home ownership is outlawed), the tricycle-riding Lord of the Underworld (Mark Zeisler), and three endlessly disapproving, and alas endlessly monotonous and unfunny specters, the Stones. Orpheus’ attempted recovery of his love is a well-staged setpiece, but by that time her letter-writing and neurotic prattling will make have you wondering why he bothered.
The director, Les Waters, lives up to his name by periodically dousing the set in the liquid forgetfulness of Lethe, which runs off into a drain on the floor. Reservations aside about its content, Eurydice is a must-see for design aficionados, and is clearly the reason the mixed bag of a show has extended to August 12 (that, and overenthusiastic notices from certain quarters). Audiences are fascinated by actors splashing around onstage—hence the appeal of the recent Delacorte production of Romeo and Juliet, which built a literal bridge over its story’s troubled waters. Eurydice wisely keeps its downpours to two, and gives us much more to look at. The odd angles at which Scott Bradley has constructed the bathhouse set, with its forbidding exposed plumbing, take some getting used to visually, but are a convincing rendering of a forbidding and impassable kingdom. Russell H. Champa’s lighting incisively highlights the strange gloom of the locale, while also accommodating the possibility of hope and rebirth, and Bray Poor’s sound design is a thunderous achievement that seems to shake the walls of the theater. Meg Neville’s ragged costumes, good throughout, are the best thing about the tiresome Stones. [PRG provided the lights and audio and Black Walnut constructed the scenery.] This is only the second Ruhl show I’ve seen, and already the flavor of the month is souring; still, the physical production of Eurydice is something to savor, and to look back on approvingly for its constantly creative design.--Robert Cashill