By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Looking for something fun to wrap up your summer? You won’t find a better way than Laguna Playhouse’s production of the 2007 Broadway musical “Xanadu” that runs through August 21. The new staging is thoroughly steeped in the ’80s – in a good way – and it’s a blast.
“Xanadu” is directed and choreographed by Paula Hammons Sloan, who earlier this year helmed “The Spitfire Grill” and “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” and it features many cast members from “A Chorus Line,” “Saturday Night Fever” and other musicals seen at the playhouse earlier this season.
We’re in Southern California circa 1980. Would-be artist Sonny Malone (Dorian Quinn) has created a public chalk mural of the nine Muses of ancient Greece, but bemoans its imperfections. After he stomps away in frustration, the Muses come to life.
Clio (Kristen Daniels) asserts that Sonny simply needs other-worldly inspiration. “We’re in the 1980s, not the 1780s,” the Muses tell her, “and this isn’t Venice, Italy, it’s Venice, California,” but she proceeds, undeterred, with being a muse to the young man.
The paper-thin plot then follows Clio’s materialization into Sonny’s life as the roller-skating “Kira” and her efforts to encourage him to realize his aspirations.
Sonny’s dream is to run a roller disco. And wouldn’t you know it? The Xanadu Theater sits empty on Fairfax Avenue. Its owner is Danny McGuire (Jonathan Van Dyke), and as fate would have it, Clio (pronounced CLIGH-oh) came into his life 35 years earlier when, as a young man, his love of the arts was stoked by her love.
In a nutshell, “Xanadu” is sheer froth and sheer joy. It’s all goofy, silly, corny fun, and considering the lighter-than-air storyline and vibrant rock score and Laguna’s bubbly presentation and eye-filling dance numbers, what’s not to like?
In adapting Richard Christian Danus and Mark Reid Rubel’s screenplay, Douglas Carter Beane added a new wrinkle to spice things up: Influenced by the 1981 film “Clash of the Titans,” he created a subplot involving two of Clio’s sisters.
The Muses Melpomene (Judy Mina-Ballard) and Calliope (Michelle Bendetti) are jealous that younger sibling Clio is in line to inherit all power from dad Zeus – so they inflict a curse upon her that causes her to break Zeus’s cardinal rule that a Muse must not fall in love with a mortal.
Both the stage musical and the 1980 film it’s based on recycled the plot of the 1947 Rita Hayworth film “Down to Earth” about a Muse who comes to earth to inspire a struggling artist. The “Xanadu” movie was no great shakes, leaving Beane plenty of room for improvement.
The real hook of the stage version, though, are its music and lyrics. Jeff Lynne, co-founder of the rock group Electric Light Orchestra, and music producer John Farrar, have included songs each had written for ELO, the San Francisco-based rock group The Tubes, and British rocker Cliff Richard.
Eric Stern wrote new arrangements of “I’m Alive,” “Magic,” “Suddenly” and “Dancin’” and integrated two classic ELO songs – “Strange Magic” and “Evil Woman” – into the stage version along with Farrar’s “Have You Never Been Mellow.” You’ll recognize these songs and others even if you don’t know the film.
In Laguna, Sloan’s dance steps flow organically out of each song and each scene, which creates a magical, and fabulous, effect.
Sloan’s cast plunges in with abandon. Their enjoyment of the show’s lighthearted fun is infectious.
Daniels, as Clio/Kira, delivers a brilliant light-comedic performance, matched by Quinn’s doofy but lovable Sonny.
In the lead role, Daniels is thoroughly winning and endearing. With her blonde tresses, hair ribbons, pink garments, Aussie dialect and ever-present roller skates, she comes just shy of parodying Olivia Newton-John.
Daniels projects the Newton-John persona. More crucially, she captures the late pop star’s unmistakable vocal style. Daniels is featured in nearly every musical number, bringing the Newton-John mystique to “Strange Magic,” “Suddenly,” and the socko finale “Xanadu” where Sonny’s dream of a roller disco is giddily realized.
Wearing a black-and-white tank top, ’80s short-shorts, and red head and wristbands, Quinn’s Sonny blithely buzzes around on skates, ever the doofus but unconcerned.
Quinn’s joyful exuberance complements Daniels’ sweetly oblivious Kira. The duo have an easy, natural on-stage chemistry that gives their scenes a lift. It’s a spark more simpatico than romantic, which is exactly what’s called for.
Van Dyke’s Danny McGuire gives us a glimpse of a once-creative spirit who gave up after Clio dematerialized from his life 35 years earlier. The flashback to 1945 shows Danny and the ageless Clio long ago and features a spectacularly exciting tap dance by Alec Mittenthal as the younger Danny.
As Melpomene, Mina-Ballard spoofs villainous Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” – apt since the actor has played that role in the stage version of the animated film. The character relishes her own evil, and Mina-Ballard delivers an aptly over-the-top comedic turn.
As Calliope, Bendetti functions as a straight-man to Melpomene in what amounts to a role less colorful and more pedestrian but no less focal.
Inspired touches abound – as the supremely silly moment when Sonny arrives at Mt. Olympus and mistakes Zeus for Laurence Olivier and the Muses as the actors who starred in “Clash of the Titans.”
Laguna’s show is also a winner design-wise. Chris Strangfeld’s scenic work mixes pristine urban Venice, Calif., with the white marble floors and columns of the “Xanadu” theater. Glittering costumes (uncredited in the program) add to the fun, and Clifford Spurlock’s lighting and Ian Scott’s sound design amplify the story.
“Xanadu” makes no apologies for being over-the-top fun – nor are any necessary.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through August 21. Running time (intermission included): One hour, 50 minutes. Tickets: $55 to $95. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, lagunaplayhouse.org