The silly, slaphappy 2007 tuner “Xanadu” is a delicious dessert inspired by a sour stew, the 1980 stinkeroo of the same name. Disco-era jukebox of Jeff Lynne/John Farrar/Electric Light Orchestra hits, kicking off its national tour at La Jolla Playhouse, sparkles in the hands of librettist Douglas Carter Beane, choreographer Dan Knechtges and helmer Christopher Ashley. You have to believe they are magic.
In the famously awful pic, Olivia Newton-John descends to Earth in roller skates and leg warmers as mythical muse Clio, inspiring would-be artist Sonny just as, a generation earlier, she beguiled would-be musician Danny. (Michael Beck and Gene Kelly portrayed those suitors, to the credit of neither career.)
The pompous Sonny dreams of a place where all the arts can thrive harmoniously (you’ve guessed it: a Venice Beach roller-disco), and that’s it for plot. Otherwise the pic, whose DVD box really should warn against operating heavy machinery, rolls out tune after ELO tune with self-conscious movie trickery and freight-train pacing.
Beane’s libretto retains the roller-palace fantasy straight-faced — all the funnier as a result — while adding faux-classical diction and leavening the tale.
Clio (a sweet, earnest Elizabeth Stanley) now chooses to assume the disguise of Aussie “Kira,” Paul Hogan accent and all, to bring out the latent talent in Sonny (Max von Essen), an affable dim bulb in period-specific short-shorts cut so high you can infer the thesp’s religion.
Danny (Larry Marshall) is made a rapacious real estate mogul, turning his back on his creative past. Meanwhile, mischievous sisters Melpomene (Sharon Wilkins) and Calliope (Joanna Glushak) put Clio under a romantic spell causing a “Clash of the Titans” with father Zeus (Marshall again, in Olivier drag).
We’re not talking substance here, but strong antagonists bring momentum and heart to the storytelling, as well as purpose to the numbers.
Knechtges kids the period’s disco moves and tropes with affection rather than condescension, showcasing “Magic,” “I’m Alive” and the title tune with panache. Supplementing the film score with familiar hits “Evil Woman” and “Have You Never Been Mellow?” “Xanadu” is a happy nostalgia trip whether you found the ’70s the ultimate in campy fun or the beginning of the Apocalypse, musically speaking.
Perfs mimic the Gotham originals with varying degrees of freshness and variety. Glushak channels thesp Jackie Hoffman pretty closely, while Wilkins adds a fresh touch of “Dreamgirls” diva. Stanley’s openness and ingenuous smile make for a doll of a Kira despite an unflattering costume (David Zinn’s clothes are otherwise witty and appropriate) and some shaky skating.
In a terrific casting choice, Marshall assigns Danny a measure of prewar cabaret cool reminiscent of Billy Daniels or Bobby Short. And though von Essen gives Sonny a furrowed brow where Broadway’s Cheyenne Jackson sported a goofy grin, both interps are equally likable, and von Essen’s pipes can’t be beat.
Truth be told, “Xanadu” may be too hip for some rooms if familiarity with its pop references is lacking. Anyone recognizing “Assassin!” from “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (a nice Maggie Smith turn from JB Wing) or the guitar break in bar two of “Evil Woman” will be in excellent shape.
For that matter, knowing the movie helps one fully appreciate the extent of Beane’s transformation and Ashley’s inspired sendup of its tacky visual effects. That could represent the pic’s ultimate revenge: audiences buying or renting it for homework or extra credit.