Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Heaven on Wheels, and in Leg Warmers


Can a musical be simultaneously indefensible and irresistible? Why, yes it can. Witness "Xanadu," the outlandishly enjoyable stage spoof of the outrageously bad movie from 1980 about a painter and his muse who find love at a roller disco in Los Angeles.

The title doesn't ring a bell? Let me refresh your memory. In "Xanadu" did Newton-John a blooming film career destroy. (Sorry, Mr. Coleridge, I couldn't resist.)

You probably remember how Olivia Newton-John, the pert, wholesome pop thrush, rocketed to film stardom opposite John Travolta in the Hollywood version of the musical "Grease." That was in 1978. A mere two years later she roller-skated into oblivion — or at least back to Australia — in a fabulously insipid turkey called "Xanadu," which didn't do much for Gene Kelly's career, either. "Xanadu" also helped kill the "Grease"-born movie musical revival right quick, and the film now resides, I trust, under toxic lockdown at Netflix shipping centers across the country. Watch it at your peril.

Why, you may wonder, would anyone deem it necessary, or even worthwhile, to pay lavish mock homage to a dreadful movie by exhuming it for exhibition onstage? Has Broadway nothing better to do? Has the American musical theater reached such a nadir of inspiration?

Well, yeah. I guess. Whatever. Why pester me with silly questions when there's so much silly bliss to be had at the Helen Hayes Theater, where the new, improved "Xanadu" opened last night? In any case, Douglas Carter Beane, the impish playwright who has ingeniously adapted the screenplay for the stage (while wearing a Hazmat suit, I hope), trumps such hectoring queries by acknowledging the inanity of the enterprise himself. In his adorably ditzy new book for the musical, Mr. Beane posits 1980, the year "Xanadu" dawned and the year in which the stage version is set, as a cultural turning point. "The muses are in retreat," muses the god Zeus, played by Tony Roberts, in the musical's poignant climax. (Kidding!) "Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theater? They'll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter's catalog, throw it onstage and call it a show."

Prophetic words, mighty Zeus, but the creators and performers of "Xanadu" desecrate the theatah with such sharp good humor and magnetic high spirits that you won't have much time to weep for the cultural blight that too much of Broadway has become. And in fact, there is enough first-rate stage talent rolling around in "Xanadu" to power a season of wholly new, old-school, non-jukebox musicals, if someone would get around to writing a few good ones.

Kerry Butler, as the Greek demi-goddess Clio, who also roams Venice Beach as the Australian mortal Kira, is simply heaven on eight little polyurethane wheels. Or heaven in leg warmers. (Actually she's both: the skates and woolens are Ms. Newton-John's memorably ghastly signature look from the movie, though the costume designer David Zinn chose not to drape her in those fetching peasant blouses.)

Ms. Butler is the rare Broadway ingénue who is as funny as she is pretty, and she sings gloriously, too, both in her own tangy Broadway belt and in a devastatingly funny impersonation of Ms. Newton-John's sweetly sighing soprano. (When Ms. Butler is speaking Australian, she's actually a ringer for a fresher import from Down Under, Nicole Kidman.) She's got a lovely line in arabesque on those skates, too! Can Audra McDonald or Kristin Chenoweth do that?

Clio-Kira sheds her inspirational light on a frustrated young would-be artist named Sonny, who spends his time making chalk murals on the sidewalk by the shore. Sonny has chalk for brains, too, and Cheyenne Jackson, the star of "All Shook Up," the forgettable Elvis jukebox musical, plays him beautifully as a big slab of prime beefcake in tube socks and denim cutoffs. Sonny's twinkling blue eyes have all the depth of a kiddie pool, his earnest effusions the hilarious aridity of soap-opera acting. (Mr. Jackson is a last-minute and temporary substitute for James Carpinello, star of the forgettable stage ripoff of "Saturday Night Fever," who was injured in a skating accident and will return to the role when he heals.)

Working from a screenplay consisting of atrocious musical numbers Scotch-taped together with doltish dialogue, Mr. Beane filled the gaps by dreaming up tasty shtick for two of Clio's wicked sister muses, Calliope and Melpomene, who are played by the stage-devouring comic actresses Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa, respectively. Their theme song, "Evil Woman," is a highlight, as Ms. Hoffman, in her cat eyeglasses looking like a Roz Chast cartoon sprung to life, scats the shrieky guitar riffs while Ms. Testa bellows the chorus in chesty tones. Together or separately, they are both criminally funny.

Perhaps you remember "Evil Woman," a hit for the not-quite- immortal '70s synth-rock outfit Electric Light Orchestra. (A clue: Sing the first syllable twice.) If you were at least tween-age in 1980 and in possession of a radio, you will probably recognize a big chunk of the pop score for "Xanadu," which includes the sultry ballad "Magic" and the pulsating title tune, written (like "Evil Woman") by Jeff Lynne, the songwriter for E.L.O.

Back in the day, these were the kind of songs that you'd scoff at in public but crank up and sing along with in the privacy of your Camaro. Now, thanks to our metastasizing cultural affection for the drek of yesteryear (one day theses will be written about that seminal work "Mamma Mia!"), we are free to celebrate them in collective public rituals, as long as everyone agrees to keep tongues in cheeks.

"Xanadu," which has mostly been directed at roller-derby speed by Christopher Ashley, does have a few dead spots in its brisk 90-minute running time. In addition to Zeus, Mr. Roberts plays the Gene Kelly role from the movie, a magnate named Danny Maguire who bankrolls Sonny's disco dreams.

Mr. Roberts possesses a polished deadpan style, but Mr. Beane's inspiration seems to have failed him when it came to minting fresh fun from the subplot involving flashbacks to Danny's 1940s romance. The stage "Xanadu" can't really muster much in the way of an extravaganza, either, despite Dan Knechtges's mercilessly cheesy choreography and the music director Eric Stern's zesty pop arrangements. (For those attuned to higher musical planes, yes, he is that Eric Stern.) The production is skimpy on both the casting and design fronts.

A few dozen audience members are seated onstage, but this device, used effectively in "Spring Awakening," seems less an aesthetic choice than an economic one here. With a cast of just 10 and minimal sets (the designer David Gallo seems to have blown much of the budget on disco balls), "Xanadu" uses these onstage viewers as unpaid extras and space-filling, mildly animated scenery.

I can imagine, though, that members of the movie's cult following, amateur cultural archaeologists of all things '80s, would thrill to the prospect of being magically spirited into the swirling center of a beloved period artifact.

"This is like children's theater for 40-year-old gay people!" cracks Ms. Hoffman's Calliope at one point, and she (or rather Mr. Beane) is only half-kidding. But that acidic epithet could be used to describe far too many more earnest Broadway duds of recent vintage. At least "Xanadu" is in on the joke. The show's winking attitude toward its own aesthetic abjectness can be summed up thus: If you can't beat 'em, slap on some roller skates and join 'em.


Book by Douglas Carter Beane; music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar; based on the Universal Pictures film screenplay by Richard Danus and Marc Rubel; directed by Christopher Ashley; choreography by Dan Knechtges; music direction and arrangements by Eric Stern; sets by David Gallo; lighting by Howell Binkley; costumes by David Zinn; sound by T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella; projection design by Zachary Borovay; technical supervision by Juniper Street Productions; production stage manager, Arturo E. Porazzi; general manager, Laura Heller. Presented by Robert Ahrens, Dan Vickery, Tara Smith/B. Swibel and Sarah Murchison/Dale Smith at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

WITH: Kerry Butler (Clio/Kira), Cheyenne Jackson (Sonny), Tony Roberts (Danny Maguire/Zeus), Jackie Hoffman (Calliope/Aphrodite), Mary Testa (Melpomene/Medusa), Curtis Holbrook (Thalia/Siren/Young Danny/'80s Singer/Cyclops), Anika Larsen (Euterpe/Siren/'40s Singer/Thetis), Patti Murin (Erato/Siren/'40s Singer/Eros/Hera), David Tankersley (Featured Skater) and André Ward (Terpsicore/Siren/'80s Singer/Hermes/Centaur).

(Source: The New York Times | Theater Review | 'Xanadu')

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Rolling Wonder



June 25, 2007 -- SHE'S been courted by a beast and chomped by a plant. But neither "Beauty and the Beast" nor "Little Shop of Horrors" prepared Kerry Butler for the hell on wheels that is "Xanadu."

Broadway's spin on the Olivia Newton-John roller flick claimed its first casualty two weeks ago, when co-star James Carpinello broke his ankle in two places, prompting a new opening night (July 10) and a new male lead (Cheyenne Jackson).

Days after the rehearsal that sidelined Carpinello - who played the artist to Butler's muse - she seemed shaken.

"He moved his whole family to be here, and we love him," she says. "He's the best skater of all of us! He would check my skates for me every day and warn us about things." It was while showing the others a place onstage where their skates could get stuck that he went down.

But accidents, the 36-year-old trouper reveals over a veggie burger at an Upper West Side diner, are hardly news on Broadway.

"In 'Hairspray,' " - where Butler played nerdy Penny Pingleton - "they'd pop their knees and hurt their necks. In 'Little Shop,' the giant plant was so heavy, the puppeteers were always getting back problems. In 'Blood Brothers,' one of the set pieces came down, hit a girl on the head and they rushed her to the hospital.

"Susan Egan" - the Beast's first Belle - "broke her arm and went through previews that way! Once I was on the castle and the lightboard started coming down on top of me and I had to get down on the floor."

Little wonder Butler - who calls herself "one of the most uncoordinated people you'd ever meet" - was a little antsy about all that skating.

"I have a great coach," she says. "Before we started, they gave me three hours a week of skating lessons for a month in a little studio on 72nd Street.

"So I go to rehearsals thinking I'm pretty good and then I realize, I can't skate around someone! For the first month of rehearsal, I didn't even act - I just concentrated on skating."

Initially, the entire cast was supposed to roll around in the finale. But at the first day of rehearsals, she says, the over-40s - Tony Roberts and Jackie Hoffman among them - were proclaimed exempt.

"Jackie cried," Butler recalls. "Tears of joy!"

But while the skating's been tricky, channeling Newton-John has thrilled her.

"She and Donna Summer taught me how to sing!" Butler says. "She's my muse!"

Growing up in Bensonhurst, she made a few commercials before her mom yanked her out of showbiz. But at 9, Butler found "Annie" and begged to be in it.

Many auditions later, she says, the principal of her parochial school went on the PA and said, "Everybody, pray for Kerry Butler - she has a final callback today for 'Annie.' "

One classmate, a future Muppeteer named Joe Mazzarino, wasn't buying it.

"I'm not praying for that," he said, "That's stupid!"

Ten years ago, they got married anyway. (And no, she didn't get the part.)

Recently, the couple adopted a little girl from Ethiopia named Segi.

"I used to skate around the apartment," Butler says. "We'd put on music and she'd dance, I'd skate.

"Now, every morning, she says, 'Skate? Skates?' "

She smiles. "We're getting her a pair!"

(Source: New York Post | Theater | Rolling Wonder)

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