WaterTower Theatre chills down the summer’s swelter with a peppy production of Douglas Carter Beane’s Tony award-nominated stage adaptation of the 1980 movie musical flop Xanadu. Hard to imagine this treacle-laced paper napkin of a show getting nominated for a distinguished award, but maybe it was a slow year for musicals? It’s 1980 in Venice, California. A blonde bimbo-ish Greek muse in pink chiffon comes to town to inspire a daffy street artist in skimpy cut-offs to follow his dream, and they find forbidden love. On roller skates. Got the picture? The panned 1980 movie, featuring Olivia Newton-John lisping some of her pop hits, was actually sweet and charming. Beane’s adaptation includes Newton-John’s hits (plus “Have You Never Been Mellow” sung to the Greek god Zeus) and adds two Electric Light Orchestra favorites. It also demonstrates a genuinely snarky edge, putting down the era with wry commentary and asides throughout, as in describing the action “like children’s theatre for 40 year old gay people.”
WaterTower Theatre brought in New York City based Robert Bartley, well versed in satire and broad comedy, to direct. A perky Newton-John-ish blonde always plays the lead muse Kira, no exception here. West Coast singer/actress Brittany Danielle looks the part and handles her roller skates with flair. Her somewhat flat, nasal speaking delivery (not helped by a dollop of scripted Australian accent, another putdown of Newton-John) and uninspired, occasionally off pitch singing does not make her the show-stopping sweetheart the character should be. But she sure looks right in bright pink flounce and matching leg warmers and spins around the stage on those blades without hesitation. As Sonny, the daffy artist, Bartley cast lithe, handsome, well-muscled Sean McGee, a recent University of Oklahoma graduate. Also adept on skates, McGee works very hard to do a good job and demonstrates talent as a singer and actor. Perhaps not quite ready to carry lead roles, he shows promise and has solid moments. There isn’t much palpable chemistry between his Sonny and Kira, but the script does not foster it well.
Funniest performances in the production come from actors in secondary roles. As evil muse Melpomene’s nerdy sister Calliope, nationally recognized Stacia Malone tickles the audience’s funny bone with every antic, on stage moment. Tough to upstage that veritable force of nature and regional leading diva Liz Mikel (Melpomene), but each time the two interact or sing together it’s hard to stop watching Malone.
Local celebrated actor Bradley Campbell plays the musical’s gruff “villain” Danny, bearing a secret torch for an earlier incarnation of Kira in the 1940’s era, and in Act Two the god Zeus in silver lame robe and ill-fitting silver wig. Campbell exudes such professional ease and authority in both roles, demonstrating off the cuff comic mastery, he simply, quietly walks away with the show over the agitated earnestness of the leads. He even appears on roller skates in the final number. Kudos to age, wisdom, experience and cojones.
The chorus of “sister” muses includes Jessi Little, Mallory Michaellann, Thomas Christopher Renner and Darius-Anthony Robinson. A tight, bright, energized ensemble, they add some pop and sizzle to the show with fun solo moments (Renner’s brief tap dance atop a desk and Robinson’s golden-caped god Hermes stand out). Choreographer Jacob Brent integrates the leads’ moves smoothly into the non-stop ensemble “flash dance” and incorporates the roller skating seamlessly. Bob Lavallee’s set functions efficiently, but isn’t this is the third time lighted pastel panels frame a WaterTower production during the past year? It’s time for a new design motif.
Mark Mullino conducts a four-piece combo, elevated in view above the stage (keyboards: Mullino, Thiago Nascimento; guitar: Michael Ragsdale; drums: Jay Majernik). Opening night they could have turned up the sound to make the theater walls reverberate with the 1980’s pop rock beat, but perhaps they turned down to accommodate WaterTower’s older season subscriber base.
PHOTOS by Karen Almond
WaterTower Theatre presents Xanadu, directed by Robert Bartley, through August 18, 2013.
Tickets: www.watertowertheatre.org or 972-450-6232