Theater Review: “Xanadu” — Let the Campy Times Roll

The SpeakEasy Stage Company’s Xanadu is a joyful, fun piece of light summer entertainment, beautifully executed by the cast and crew, that celebrates sublime schlock in surprisingly hilarious and creative ways.

Xanadu. Book by Douglas Carter Beane. Music and Lyrics by Jeff Lynne & John Farrar. Directed by Paul Daigneault. Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA, through June 9.

By Alyssa Hall

Ryan Overberg and McCaela Donovan in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of XANADU. Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

In the musical comedy Xanadu, struggling 80s sidewalk artist Sonny dreams of converting an old theater into a roller disco club where art, dance, music, and sport converge into a totally rad entertainment experience. With the help of Greek demi-god muse Clio, who descends from Mt. Olympus to aid his quest of artistic creation (and, of course, to fall in love with him), he eventually succeeds. SpeakEasy Stage Company also succeeds in their 100th production, creating an effervescent jukebox musical spoof that brings smiles to every face and glow sticks to every hand.

Roller disco means roller skating, and the conversion of the theater into an almost-in-the-round (three quarters with the band in the back) configuration gives the cast plenty of room to roll when needed and to execute the energetic choreography of David Connolly, which comes up with footwork for music ranging from jazz to rock and disco-inspired. His steps are complicated enough to impress, but easy enough for the cast to execute in ways that make the moves look effortless and lots of fun.

Aside from a short opening scene, when hanging fabric panels obscure some of the actors, director Paul Daigneault ensures that no side of the audience does without attention from the actors for very long—performers sit in the audience and hold scorecards rating the action, chomp popcorn, ruffle hair, hand off props, and generally do what they can do to bring the audience into the silliness.

Douglas Carter Beane revamped the terrible script from the 1980 movie Xanadu, succeeding in creating a delightfully campy and funny spoof that’s in on the joke and unafraid to mock itself, both as a jukebox musical film adaption and as a purveyor of 80s “culture” (When Sonny announces he wants to open a roller disco, Clio exclaims, “How timeless!”). The thin plot is basically girl(or demi-god disguised as Australian roller skater Kira)-meets-boy. Clio/Kira’s jealous muse sisters and Danny, the businessman who owns the theater, temporarily thwart the pair, but predictably it all works out in the end after a quick trip to Mt. Olympus. The shallow plot works fine as an excuse for comic antics and deliberately melodramatic renditions of hits like “Evil Women” and “Suddenly.”

Shana Dirik and Kathy St. George in SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of XANADU. Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

The book falters when it falls back (like a ton of bricks) on clichés or outdated and too-easy jokes, such as having the chorus members agree by saying “Word” with sassy snaps of their fingers. Luckily, most of the quips are of the legitimately snappy variety, such as when the plotting sisters cackle, “This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay men.”

Clio loves flinging a handful of glitter to mark her entrances, and it suits McCaela Donovan, who plays her, as well: the talented singer and comedic actress sparkles brightly in the role. Tempering extreme perkiness with child-like enthusiasm, a la Kristin Chenoweth, she takes a naïve, simple character and personalizes her with amusingly reoccurring ticks, both physical (cheesy hand gestures) and vocal (melodramatically whispering occasional lines). She gamely handles most of the skating too, often while singing and dancing, pulling off physical comedy, and reeling off jokes in a fake Australian accent.

As the scheming sisters (conspiring to curse Clio by having her fall in love with a mortal, Shana Dirik as Melpomene (muse of tragedy) and Kathy St. George as Calliope (muse of epics) almost steal the production. A brilliant comic team for this type of broad, uninhibited, SNL-skit humor, the pair’s comic timing has apparently been blessed by the gods. Every drop of ‘conniving’ melodrama is milked for laughs. In the midst of the comedy, Dirik also nails the low, throaty vocal part of “Evil Women.”

Ryan Overberg’s Sonny is dumb, honest, extremely (often unreasonably) enthusiastic about everything from Kira/Clio to his idea of the roller disco as the pinnacle of artistic creation. All in all the performer is quite endearing: basically, he’s a sweet puppy. Overberg makes the most he can out of the one-note character: his chemistry with Donovan works and he jumps into the cast’s gleeful abandon with both feet.

McCaela Donovan (center) with her sister Muses in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of XANADU. Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

Robert Saoud rounds out the major members of the solid SpeakEasy cast as Danny, the older version of Sonny, a businessman who gave up Clio and a similar artsy dream when he was young. Saoud is smooth as a relentless, unforgiving businessman and sympathetic as the wistful man who regrets his past decisions.

Gail Astrid Buckley’s costumes live up to the over-the-top 80s vibe while being funny on their own merits. Amid the expected leg warmers, neon, and sparkles and mail-order-looking Greek goddess costumes for the muses (including mid-drift baring ones for guys in drag), she produces some unexpected costuming gems. An ingenious, full-size, silver, shiny, ride-able Pegasus puppet (think of a cartoon War Horse dipped in disco ball paint) takes four actors to operate it -— one moving the front and head, one for the hindquarters, two actors beside it waving wing flags. At one point, Clio sits sidesaddle on top of the beast, singing a song as it ‘flys’ about the theater. The winged quadruped’s entrance drew gasps, giggles, and a burst of spontaneous applause.

The “flight” of Pegasus mirrors the brazen zaniness of SpeakEasy’s Xanadu: a joyful, fun piece of light summer entertainment, beautifully executed by the cast and crew, that celebrates sublime schlock in surprisingly hilarious and creative ways.

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