The five-year span of 1978-83 saw no shortage of cultural crimes, and hammering the fatal nail in the coffin of the already moribund movie musical wasn’t the greatest of them. But some of the most misbegotten singing-dancing stinkers ever spat onto a screen arrived during the period, including “The Wiz,” “Thank God, It’s Friday,” “Can’t Stop the Music,” “Times Square,” “Grease 2” and “Staying Alive.” Arguably worst of all was “Xanadu,” about a muse descended on skates from Mount Olympus to inspire the creation of a roller disco in Venice, Calif. So it seems a feat worthy of Zeus himself that such dreck yields so much enjoyment.
Borrowing from 1947 Rita Hayworth pic “Down to Earth,” the 1980 Universal release was an inane fairy tale back then and, despite its supposed camp-classic status, is now as much fun as a root canal.
Combining songs by Electric Light Orchestra founding member Jeff Lynne and pop tunesmith-producer John Farrar, who penned monster hits for Olivia Newton-John, “Xanadu” was built as a showcase for the singer to follow “Grease.” But with less infectious material to bolster her, Newton-John displayed what can only be described as vegetable magnetism onscreen. Co-star Michael Beck was almost as inanimate, making the ludicrous dialogue, idiotic plot and bloated, instantly dated production values seem even deadlier.
Fresh off “The Little Dog Laughed,” Douglas Carter Beane has taken the unpromising clay of Richard Danus and Marc Rubel’s screenplay and molded it not only into an engagingly goofy spoof of the film itself but also a witty takedown of the Broadway creative climate. Sure, the book scenes occasionally stall, but what looked on paper to be one-note sketch fodder turns out to be an unexpectedly sustained and refreshingly unassuming crowd-pleaser.
“I shall take the improbably popular art forms in each moment of time,” says demi-goddess Clio, aka Kira (Kerry Butler). “The stage adaptation of the inferior cinematic offering, the musical of the box that is Juke, and I shall use them to remind mankind that there is something greater than wealth or fame, and that is the human experience rendered comprehensible through art.”
With a complicitous wink at the audience that’s never overplayed, the creatives and cast at every turn cheekily point up the irony of charging Rialto prices for recycled trash. The less-than-lavish physical aspects of Christopher Ashley’s gleefully low-rent production further the point, saving most of the budget for the mirror balls that cascade from the flies during the show’s eponymous closing number. The constraints of double casting, of a limited ensemble (the nine sister muses are downsized to seven) and craptastic effects are part of the joke rather than a shortcoming audiences are likely to mind.
Beane infuses all this with wry riffs on art and creativity, on bad movies and vacuous stage musicals. He lampoons the wretchedness of ’80s pop culture far more cleverly and with a lighter touch than the belabored visual gags of “The Wedding Singer,” which took a literal approach to adapting its screen source where this show takes a playfully deconstructionist one.
“This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people,” deadpans Jackie Hoffman’s Calliope, who vies hilariously for head ham honors with Mary Testa’s scheming Melpomene. It’s hard to dismiss any show for being narrowly targeted when it’s so upfront about acknowledging who it’s pitched at. But while Calliope may be correct in identifying the core audience, the ongoing retro fascination of all things ’80s should extend the appeal.
Ditto the music. Augmenting songs from the film with additional ELO hits and another of Newton-John’s, Lynne and Farrar’s string- and synth-drenched tunes — glamrock-meets-disco-meets-faux classical — are the epitome of pop-rock cheese of that era but nevertheless insidiously catchy. What’s more, Beane has stitched them into an expanded narrative context with more resourcefulness than the average musical assembly artist, finding neat fits for numbers such as “Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic” and “Have You Never Been Mellow?” — a disarming question when put to a wrathful Zeus.
The show mines Greek mythology more diligently than the movie, whimsically mixing up the characters’ journey from Earth to Mount Olympus with 1981 Ray Harryhausen schlock “Clash of the Titans.” How many contemporary auds will get the cross-referencing is uncertain, but it’s funny nonetheless, with droll appearances from Medusa, Pegasus, Cyclops and a Centaur thrown in. We’re even given a mythological explanation for the protective properties of leg-warmers.
There was some disappointment in the Broadway community when Jane Krakowski, who had performed the lead in workshops, opted not to do the show. But it’s hard to imagine anyone more irresistible than Butler in the role of Kyra, the daughter of Zeus who risks her immortality for human love and the chance to create rather than just inspire.
Not only is Butler the most supremely confident woman on wheels since Raquel Welch in “Kansas City Bomber,” but her delicious parodying of Newton-John’s breathy vocals makes her numbers a hoot. The actress showed priceless comic timing as the original Penny in Broadway’s “Hairspray” but was ill-served by the flaccid “Little Shop of Horrors” revival. Here, she has charm to spare, whizzing around in a gossamer pink number with matching leg-warmers, coupling Newton-John’s vanilla wholesomeness with a sly touch of the trampy and sporting a comically exaggerated Australian drawl.
Stepping in for co-star James Carpinello, who broke a foot during previews, Cheyenne Jackson played Sonny opposite Krakowski in the workshop. That adds to his ease in the role of the directionless pavement artist touched by drive, creativity and love when other-worldly Kyra steps out of his mural depicting “Ancient Greek arty chicks.” His buff arms and waxed legs on display in tank top and cutoffs throughout, Jackson plays the soulful dumb hunk to endearing perfection.
Tony Roberts seems slightly uncomfortable in the thankless role of Danny Maguire (originated onscreen by Gene Kelly), the businessman given a chance to make good after messing up his first brush with a muse 35 years earlier. Roberts is a good sport, however, clearly having a better time later on when he channels the plummy declamatory tones of Laurence Olivier as Zeus.
Director Ashley guides the small cast to connect with the show’s blissed-out, self-reflexive spirit while keeping them just guileless enough to be part of the spectacle rather than its smug superiors. Among the multitasking ensemble members, Andre Ward cranks up the sassy black attitude as dancing mister-sister muse Terpsicore, and Curtis Holbrook’s impressive tap skills get a vigorous workout in “Whenever You’re Away From Me.”
Dan Knechtges’ jokey choreography delves tirelessly into the repertoire of ’80s dance kitsch, with lots of hand action allowing Butler to acknowledge Newton-John’s, let’s call them limited, moves. Nothing here can equal the jaw-dropping assault of numbers from the movie like the ’40s/’80s musical duel “Dancin’,” in which an Andrews Sisters-style trio battle it out with Lycra-clad headbangers; or the shopping-spree horror show of “All Over the World.” But Ashley conveys the general idea with economy and wicked humor.
Following the trend of “Spring Awakening” and “Inherit the Wind” last season, the main feature of David Gallo’s design is Grecian bleachers for reduced-price onstage seating, allowing the audience to get in on the action by waving glowsticks during the title song.
Back in the days when Off Broadway was a viable avenue for offbeat shows with cult appeal, “Xanadu” would have been a sure bet. In a mainstem house at $111 a pop, the verdict is not yet in on its ability to turn strong word of mouth into a sustained audience. Whatever the show’s future, Beane and the young producing team of Broadway neophytes have made it a guilt-free pleasure to visit “a place where nobody dared to go.”