This stage spoof of the 1980 roller disco movie is rolling into the Hayes
Based on the so-bad-it’s-good 1980 film about the divine invention of roller disco, Xanadu the Musical is just as ridiculous as it sounds. Unfortunately, in this production it’s less of a guilty pleasure and more something to be endured.
Sonny Malone (Ainsley Melham, soon to star in Disney’s Aladdin the Musical) is a frustrated artist on the verge of suicide – nothing he creates is ever good enough – when he meets Kira (Jaime Hadwen, in the role made famous by Olivia Newton-John), a blonde roller-skating babe with a broad Australian accent who encourages him to realise his dream of building a place where visual art, theatre, music, dance, and athletics come together. He is reinvigorated by her support and tracks down a site for his roller disco, which he will call Xanadu.
The wrinkle in this musical comedy setup is that Kira is actually Clio, the Muse of History from Greek myth. She’s simply on a mission to get in, inspire the artist, and get out – undercover. She is ageless and seemingly untouchable, forbidden by her father Zeus from loving a mortal or creating art herself. Add to the mix a couple of scheming sisters who are upset they were passed over for the Head of the Muses gig (Jayde Westaby and Francine Cain in all their Disney villain glory), a property mogul (Josh Quong Tart) who once had a visit from Kira back when he believed in art, and the dawning blush of love between human and muse. Shenanigans ensue.
Xanadu the Musical doesn’t come from the sharpest of source material and it shows. It’s a hacky, tacky and loud piece of musical theatre, and even though Douglas Carter Beane’s book actually has more insight (it’s largely a parody of itself) and structure than the plot-hole-heavy film, under director Nathan M. Wright, this production feels unresolved and embarrassingly un-funny.
Wright is fresh from choreographing Xanadu’s London premiere, and it feels as though he’s tried to cram the same sound mix and energy level of the 240 seat Southwark Playhouse into the Hayes – which is half the size – without re-calibrating any of his decisions. The cumulative effect smacks of a child playing dress-up in their parents’ clothing, trying too hard to be seen.
Every comic beat is stretched out, the jokes laboriously over-delivered until they inevitably fall flat. Everything about this musical’s book and score is a wink-and-nudge to the audience, but Wright’s production commits the cardinal sin of explaining the joke to the audience instead of nodding to it. “People come and go so quickly here,” a character remarks, and it’s such a non-event that you have to wonder if Wright knows that’s a quote from The Wizard of Oz, but a character snapping the tired and generic catchphrase “Bitch, I don’t know your life,” becomes the biggest moment in the script. This production is a panto, but the text is parody, and this dissonance is frustrating.
Wright’s choreography is surprisingly simplistic: Kira, on roller skates for the duration, spends most of the time lapping the stage in a languid circle. It’s a challengingly small space, sure; but by building ramps or more dynamic lines into the set, the skate gimmick could have been more exciting.
The score features songs from the film as well as other tunes by Jeff Lynne (Electric Light Orchestra) and John Farrar, frequent collaborators who often used Newton-John as their own muse, and while the volume is closer to deafening than enjoyable, the songs are richly ’80s and stand up pretty well onstage.
The cast’s vocal performances are very fine and generally charming. Westaby and Cain’s ‘Evil Woman’ injects some much-needed self-aware comedy into the production, and Hadwen’s smooth transition from ocker into singing ingénue is a treat, though occasionally she’s fighting a losing battle against the music.
The real pleasure is Melham’s voice: it’s disarmingly rich and clear – the voice of a romantic lead – and made for musical theatre classics. If nothing else, this production is a good advertisement for his upcoming turn as the beloved Aladdin.
But these pleasures are too small to rescue the rest of the production, which feels far longer than its swift 90-minute running time. When your production of Xanadu the Musical feels less intelligent than the source material, you have a real problem.