By Jeff Walsh
Xanadu, the new Broadway musical based on the old train wreck of a 1980s Olivia Newton John movie, is hard to pin down. It's definitely a campy, amusing time at the theater. It has an excellent cast and staging. And it calls to mind other jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia, Footloose, Saturday Night Fever, only it never really lives up to all you hope it might be.
To be fair, the entire premise didn't leave writer Douglas Carter Beane all that much to work with. Sonny spends his time drawing chalk murals on Venice Beach sidewalks. He draws a picture of Greek muses, which comes to life, and the Greek goddess Clio becomes his muse and inspires him to follow his dream, which is to open a roller disco. That's pretty much it, as well as a score by the Electric Light Orchestra.
The show doesn't put on any airs, though. It is completely aware of its frivolity, one character even refers to the show onstage as "This is like children's theater for 40-year-old gay people!"
Using its 90-minute running time and constant movement as a way to ensure even the ADD generation doesn't start questioning the lack of dramatic oomph, it was sort of reminiscent of Chinese food: I really enjoyed it in the moment, but it didn't fill me up and a few hours later I wanted something more (which, thankfully, I got: seeing Gideon Glick that night in the amazing Speech and Debate).
I'm not trying to trash the show. It was perfect campy fun. But when I saw Mamma Mia, for example, at a certain point the familiar music and barely-there plot seemed to get pushed back, you just enjoyed the ride and, by the end, you were dancing in your seat with the cast to some ABBA. At the end of Xanadu, the audience all had glowsticks and we were waving them back and forth, but it didn't have that same silly communal moment.
The cast is led by Kerry Butler, who originated the role of Penny Pingleton in Hairspray on Broadway, and openly gay actor Cheyenne Jackson as Sonny, who both did an amazing job. Jackie Hoffman, who also did an amazing turn in Hairspray on Broadway, pretty steals the show in Xanadu. She is such a gifted performer with an amazing sense of camp and her own physicality, and she seems to be having an amazing time in the role.
After the show, I got a chance to chat with Beane himself in the lobby, who brought his young son to see the show for his first time that day. So that was a fun, little bonus.
I think the image that best sums up Xanadu for me is that when you exit the theater, you see the audience for Les Miserables across the street, and they're out on the sidewalk as well.
We're leaving the theater. They're having their intermission.