The final five minutes of Xanadu the Musical at Hayes Theatre are charmingly audacious: a cast of nine takes to the stage on wheels for an epic, sequinned song and dance set in a 1980s roller disco. The performance space of the Hayes isn’t exactly generous, but this is a cast that refuses to have their fabulosity restricted by notions of space or time.
I challenge anybody not to crack a smile at the sheer camp absurdity of the situation, as the actors come perilously close to the front row and walls on all sides, but stay committed to this vision on wheels.
If only that spirit were more successfully captured in the 90 minutes leading up to the finale.
The musical version of Xanadu is based on the 1980 Olivia Newton-John-led schlock-fest film of the same name. It tells the story of a Greek muse, Keira, who comes to earth to inspire an artist, Sonny, to fulfil his artistic destiny. By opening a roller disco.
There are a few things that are salvageable in the film: Newton-John and Gene Kelly are quite charming and some of the musical numbers are beautifully staged. It featured an eclectic soundtrack of guilty pleasure hits, with some killer ’80s and ’40s-inspired tracks, including Magic, Suddenly, Whenever You’re Away From Me and the title song. But that’s not really enough to justify telling this story on stage.
Thankfully Douglas Carter Beane, who wrote the book for the stage version, has adapted Xanadu into a camp, knowing, broad parody of itself, which highlights everything ridiculous and incongruous about the film. He’s also added in a new subplot with two of Keira’s muse sisters setting out to curse and defeat her, and streamlines some other plot elements.
He hasn’t created a work of genius, but it’s a musical which definitely works and is laugh-out-loud funny while gently raising questions about the role of art and inspiration in our lives.
Unfortunately, director/choreographer Nathan M. Wright’s production is tone deaf and misjudged in many respects. There’s nothing wrong with playing a show like this broadly — in fact, it demands it to a large degree — but there’s so little texture in this production that comedic beats are missed entirely.
There are some excellent gags in the script, but they’re so overplayed that they just stop being funny. (The line “bitch, I don’t know your life” is infinitely funnier if played small and wry — it’s delivered by a Greek god, you don’t need to bludgeon it for a laugh!)
And when a director can let an obvious and funny Wizard of Oz reference pass by practically unnoticed, but inject a tired and trite Wicked reference ten minutes later, you’ve got to wonder if they were the right choice for this camp piece of parodic nostalgia (even with choreographic references to Cats and Chicago).
While it’s fine to pump the volume for the musical numbers (and it also helps to beef up the sound of musical director Andrew Bevis’s small but tight band) the dialogue is unnecessary loud, making the scenes and songs bleed together. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in musical theatre, but it just tends to flatten things in a show which leans so heavily on the musical numbers.
There are moments that work thanks to an energetic cast with some strong instincts. Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham are endearing as our brilliantly dorky romantic leads, Keira and Sonny. When they finally skate out in their matching jackets, with their doe-eyed glances at one another while harmonising on the title track, it’s not difficult to believe that this pair could grow up to be Kath and Kel.
Hadwen has a clear and attractive belt with just a little more edge than Newton-John, and Melham has a mature, velvety pop sound (he’ll make a fine Aladdin when he plays the lead in Disney’s latest blockbuster this August). They’re both overmiked at times, but with the benefit of better direction they could both be excellent.
As the scheming sisters Melpomene and Calliope, Jayde Westaby and Francine Cain win the most laughs. And alhough their styles don’t necessarily match — Westaby brings a touch of panto and Cain is more knowing — they find the right comedic tone pretty consistently.
Josh Quong Tart does his best to bring just a touch of gravitas and sincerity to the piece as Danny, the developer whose heart is thawed by the magic of creativity. But his efforts are mostly wasted on this production.