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Xanadu is not the first roller-skating musical to grace PlayhouseSquare. Those nostalgic for vaudevillian skunks will recall the lingering odor of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Starlight Express. Happily, the current tenant, unabashedly goofy and winning, has the effect of a giant air freshener.
Perhaps we can attribute its zest to its commingling of an astoundingly dreadful movie and a savvy gay (in both senses of the word) playwright, Douglas Carter Beane.
The source material for Xanadu is the 1980 cinematic equivalent of a leisure suit: The original roller-disco film had the bilious sheen of blended polyester and ersatz boogie-woogie. Made to cash in on Australian singer Olivia Newton-John's Grease caché, it was the fully staged product of a time when Hollywood forgot how to make musicals.
Its wisp of a concept was filched from an old Rita Hayworth musical concerning the Greek muse Clio, who comes down to Earth to mentor handsome young artist Sonny. Giving the film a ghoulish aspect was 68-year-old Gene Kelly, valiantly trying to add '40s charm to a movie with the emotional IQ of a bottom-of-the-barrel sitcom.
Like Little Shop of Horrors, the stage version finds its brilliance by commenting on its source material rather than emulating it. The producers improve the original Electric Light Orchestra score through knowing self-mockery and witty choreography. With Beane as a modern-day George S. Kaufman, Xanadu flies across the stage with the irrelevant glory of vintage Marx Brothers.
The show hits its stride even before the first disco bimbo rolls onstage, when an announcer, in solemn tones, proclaims that "state law requires cut-off shorts be really short." Beane's forte is to take the comic incongruities of the movie and stretch them into endearing jokes.
For instance, in this version, Newton-John's improbable Australian accent is parodied and explained by her stage counterpart Kira as a subterfuge so the mortals won't suspect her divinity. The putrid tints of the original movie have been dyed decidedly pink, with female goddesses played by chorus boys and the hero handed a regulation pair of short shorts.
The best aspect of the production is that, in spite of the size of the touring theater, it retains the intimacy of the Broadway version. Every in-joke — from a disco ball that rises in the manner of the Phantom chandelier, to goddesses that swill Fresca — rings the bell.
Except for Max von Essen's Sonny lacking the perfect gams of Broadway counterpart Cheyenne Jackson, the cast floats like a cumulus cloud of bawdy perfection. Anyone who's ever cringed at the sins portrayed in their old yearbook will take special pleasure in the skillful wielding of this witty theatrical ax.
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