Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Mar 28, 2014
04:00 PMStage Write
That '80s Show
PHOTO BY STEVE NOLL
Have You Never Been Mellow? Mercury Players' "Xanadu" cast has a blast bashing the 1980s.
One of the long line of hilarious one-liner moments in the Broadway musical version of Xanadu comes when Clio, a Greek muse masquerading as a rollergirl named Kira, asks the dimwitted and struggling artist she’s been sent to inspire to name his ultimate artistic dream. When he mentions creating a roller discotheque, she stops and stares off into the distance.
“How timeless,” she deadpans.
The 1980 movie version of Xanadu, roundly considered one of the cheesiest productions in Hollywood history, was certainly never intended to be timeless—it’s as anchored to its glitzy, me-first decade as Izod sweaters, Donna Summer and short shorts. Mercury Players Theatre’s production of Xanadu: The Comedy Broadway Musical (playing through April 12 in the Bartell Theatre’s Drury stage) embraces the cheese and ridiculous fun with the infectious energy of a beauty pageant winner embracing Miss Second Place. It’s obvious that everyone, from director Steve Noll to the muses dressed in robes that look like the cape Shazam wore in the 1970s Saturday-morning TV show, is in on the joke and loving every minute of it.
Olivia Newton-John was far and away the best thing about the movie version of Xanadu. And as Clio/Kira, Kelly Maxwell’s far and away the best thing about Mercury Players’ production. Not only does her voice sweetly and effortlessly handle all the ONJ standards—even the duet “Whenever You’re Away from Me,” where she has to climb an octave range that’s only slightly less high than Mount Olympus—but also the consciously ridiculous Australian accent her muse-ly character adopts as one of the centerpieces of her mortal disguise. Maxwell's got enough charisma and stage presence to make us believe she could lead the team of muses and inspire two guys from different eras to fall in love and follow their artistic dreams.
That love could prove Clio’s downfall, since, you know, Zeus (a gruff Jim Chiolino) has decreed that muses aren’t allowed to fall in love with humans. Two of her conniving sisters, Melpomene (a slyly vampish Dana Pellebon) and Calliope (Mallory Saurer, camping it to the max) aim to take advantage by cursing Clio and Sonny Malone (a dopily earnest Kurtis Hopp) to fall for each other as they work with a grizzled real estate agent (Chiolino again) to renovate and open Xanadu as a roller disco.
The script, naturally, treats the ‘80s like a candy-filled punchline piñata, routinely pummeling the decade’s excesses and vapidity. Parker Stevenson, Andrew Lloyd Weber and valley-speak (“mega-bummer”) all take whacks. At one point, the muses (speaking, of course, in unison) declare that 1980 will be “the year when all artistic expression left the arts.” While they’re mostly sharp, some of the jokes breeze by a little too quickly, before they’ve had a chance to actually land on our funny bones.
The other eight muses find ways to stand out, whether it’s Jose Vega and Craig Alan Schlagel rocking their robes in drag or Saurer’s Calliope doing a hilarious job with her backup moves and goofball expressions, amping the cheese (and the laughs) as she and Pellebon sing ELO’s “Evil Woman.”
Thanks to great voices and solid effort by the four-man stage band, big cast numbers like “All Over the World,” the song that closes the first act, and the more intimate “Magic” stand up surprisingly well. Only ELO’s “Strange Magic” manages to defeat the cast’s ability to harmonize—and in fairness, Jeff Lynne’s multi-track vocals are a hell of a lot harder to nail than Newton-John’s straight-up delivery.
Roller skates—Maxwell wears them for about eighty percent of the show—actually work on the Drury stage. So do the dopey cyclops, Medusa and centaur costumes three of the actors don for a one-scene cameo. And if the promised pegasus fireball effect falls a little flat? No big deal.
The original Xanadu was always ridiculous and charming in equal measure. Mercury Players’ cast serves both sides of that equation, turning the musical into a hysterical—and harmonious—trip back to a place everybody should want to go.
Editor’s note: Due a scheduling conflict, the writer reviewed the preview performance on Thursday, March 27.