Some musicals (a very few) are great. A larger group are very, very good and even more are good. But probably the largest category of musicals, are those that are so-so, some would say “mediocre”. Producing one of these requires outstanding casting and direction.
Xanadu which is now at the Connecticut Repertory Theater in Storrs through July 19, falls into the latter category.
The musical is based on an almost famously bad movie musical of the same name that came out in 1980 and starred Olivia Newtown John. The score was the most memorable thing about the show; in fact Newton John had two major hits from the score.
In 2007, a drastically revised version of the musical, keeping the original score, opened on Broadway where it has nice run and later toured.
The book was rewritten by Douglas Carter Beane, keeping the basics of the plot but adding in self-awareness to the tackiness of both the musical period and the plot itself.
The production on Broadway, which I saw, was an enjoyable 90 minute show. Undoubtedly this was due to the skills of a very talented group of performers led by Cheyenne Jackson, Kerry Washington and Tony Roberts, Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, the latter two in broadly comic roles. Energy and chemistry abounded as well as a wink of the eye to the audience saying “we know how ridiculous this all is.”
Unfortunately for CRT, this chemistry and energy are not as present in this production. Thus the flaws of Xanadu are on display for all to see.
In the show, the various Greek muses have been rendered as chalk art by Sonny, a not-very-good or bright young California man (think surfer dude). However, Clio is smitten with him and decides she and the others (they apparently follow her lead) will all come to life and she will be his muse. Her disguise? An Australian girl named Kira. Her sister muses accompany her but two of the older ones — Colliope and Melpomene are jealous of the attention she gets from Zeus, their father and chief Greek god. They plot of have her fall in love with Sonny which will cause her to be banished to the netherworld.
Also in the plot is Danny, an older man who had in his youth similar artistic aspirations but abandoned them (and his muse) to make money. He now owns an abandoned space that Sonny wants to use as an artistic venue including a disco roller rink!
The plot moves quickly — Sonny and Kira find the venue and Sonny convinces Danny to let him use it, Danny sees a strange resemblance between Kira and his muse, the two sisters plot to have Eros strike both Sonny and Kira with the arrows of love and then they convince Danny to once again go after the money and renege on the deal with Sonny. Kira confesses all to Sonny who doesn’t believe her but then Danny intervenes. Onto Mt. Olympus where Zeus is convinced to spare Kira/Clio because it is true love and all ends happily.
One of the main problems with this production is some of the choices that director Vincent J. Cardinal has made. He continues the Broadway tradition of having two of the lesser muses played by men — and played well by Johnny Brantley III and Connor Donnally, but he has also cast a man as one of the “evil” sisters. Unfortunately Steven Haynes simply reminds you of a younger Harvey Fierstein. It is a distraction to the audience and adds little.
A second problem is that the leading roles of Sonny and Kira/Clio need to be played by performers with magnetism and charm. Neither Luke Hamilton as Sonny nor Amandina Altomare as Kira/Clio fit the bill. They are attractive — though Hamilton is bland, they sing pleasantly, they dance competently, but they do not have that extra “oomph” that a show like this needs.
In fact, Dirk Lumbard as Danny all but steals the show. He not only received the most applause but his numbers are the highlight of the show.
The scenic design and projections by Tim Brown effectively set the show but more could have been done with lighting. Cassie Abate’s choreography was good.
Overall Xanadu may be enjoyable for those who like somewhat tacky musicals but this production will not encourage you to see it again.
Xanadu is at the Connecticut Repertory Theater on the UConn campus in Storrs through July 19. For tickets contact crt.uconn.edu.