nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 12, 2007
How many people today remember Follow the Girls? It opened in April 1944, and everybody knew it was second-rate and dopey. (Critic Burns Mantle described it thus: "It would have been the story of a burlesque queen who becomes the queen of a service men's canteen, but by the time room had been found for the vaudeville specialists employed, everybody had forgotten the story, and nobody cared.") Except for Oklahoma!, Follow the Girls was the most successful musical of the World War II era...precisely because nobody much wanted to care.
Well, they had Follow the Girls; we have Xanadu. The source material is of course a cult movie with a reputation for camp awfulness exceeded by few; the nonsensical story, about a doofus California beach bum who falls in love with the Greek muse Clio and turns an old theatre into a roller disco, is hardly one for the ages. But by the time room has been found for the likes of Mary Testa, Jackie Hoffman, Tony Roberts, Curtis Holbrook, and a pair of specialty roller skaters to strut their stuff—not to mention a foolishly silly set by David Gallo that puts audience members right on stage, allowing them to hold up glow-in-the-dark baubles during the finale—all that anybody's cognizant of is how good a time most of the audience members seem to be having. I guess 2007 is as war-weary a moment in history as 1944; folks just want to be entertained, that's all.
So criticism of Xanadu is pretty much beside the point. What you need to know is that if this sounds like the sort of thing that will appeal to you—a kitschy '80s score of ELO hits/also-rans that includes "Magic," "Evil Woman," "Suddenly," and "Have You Never Been Mellow?"; a relentlessly self-mocking, self-aware, broad and jokey book, filled with vaguely campy dialogue and the occasional innuendo; a small but buff chorus line of "muses"/"sirens" (both male and female) showing a good deal of leg—then Xanadu may be just what you crave. Librettist Douglas Carter Beane, director Christopher Ashley, and choreographer Dan Knechtges have built this show precisely to spec with savvy and skill, and they've created what to my mind is the quintessential jukebox musical (it's much better than Mamma Mia!, for example, by virtue of being both a good deal wittier and a good deal shorter—it clocks in at just over 90 minutes).
Leading lady Kerry Butler, donning Olivia Newton-John's Aussie accent (and leg-warmers and roller skates) from the movie, oversells the parody, presumably at director Ashley's urging; it's the one significant misstep in an otherwise underplayed low comic panoply. Cheyenne Jackson, on the other hand, plays it straight as Butler's exceptionally dim-witted love interest; he earns his laughs by, for example, bursting into one of the Cliff Richard verses of "Suddenly" in the middle of a phone call as if he really means it.
The always invaluable Mary Testa lends expert support as one of the comic villainesses of the piece, Clio's eldest sister, the Muse of Tragedy; Jackie Hoffman, a comedienne generally not to my taste, deadpans her way through the other villainess role as the Muse of Epic. (They get several musical numbers, notably "Evil Woman" and "Fool.") Dancer Curtis Holbrook, who was terrific in a small role in All Shook Up a couple of seasons back, gets some great moments to himself here, particularly a tap solo to "Whenever You're Away From Me"—he's a talent to keep an eye on. And old hand Tony Roberts is ideally cast as the rich old businessman who owns the building where the roller disco will be housed; I can't remember seeing him more at ease or in command on stage.
David Zinn's costumes include some whimsical creations in the scene set at Mount Olympus (he gets to dress Testa as Medusa, Holbrook as Cyclops, and Andre Ward as the Centaur; credit should also go to wig/hair designer Charles G. LaPointe). Gallo's set features a giant mirror a la The Producers, a flying pegasus, and enough mirror balls to make Studio 54 feel underdressed.
Now, I don't want to leave you with the impression that I particularly liked Xanadu: I enjoyed it well enough, I suppose, but for me it overstayed its welcome about an hour along; what I mostly don't get is why Baby Boomers seem to like so much mean-spirited destructiveness served up with their nostalgia.
But lots of people in the audience clearly were having a blast, and who am I to spoil a good time? In 60 years, Xanadu will likely be as forgotten as Follow the Girls, so why worry?