4:25 PM CDT, September 14, 2012
The disco balls of "Xanadu," surely the only musical in history to embrace the line "woman don't harsh my mellow," have invaded the Drury Lane, a theater once known for its crystal chandeliers. It's a rather terrifying reminder that what constitutes nostalgia creeps ever forward; it won't be long before they're playing the Electric Light Orchestra in retirement homes.
But some old habits die hard at Drury Lane. On Broadway, "Xanadu" was a swift, 90-minute confection, over before you had the chance to realize just how frivolous was the whole endeavor. In Oakbrook Terrace, they've added an intermission.
Not a good move. Trust me, once those Olivia Newton-John songs start spinning and the camp dialogue pitches its suburban tent, you don't need to break for any thought. When you're on roller skates, pauses can be dangerous.
"Xanadu" is a spoof of the deliciously incoherent 1980 bomb starring the bizarre combination of Newton-John, wheels and Aussie accents, and Gene Kelly, who looks like he has no clue what movie he is doing.
The 2007 Broadway musical, book by Douglas Carter Beane, was a very clever translation — "Xanadu," the show, fully embraces the awfulness of the movie, treating it as a chance to spoof 1980s culture, while also satiating the audience with a catchy suite of songs, most of which you've likely repressed: "I'm Alive," "Strange Magic," "All Over the World," "Have You Never Been Mellow" and, of course, the title ditty. More shrewd yet, the original Broadway production, which I enjoyed, also anticipated any and all criticisms, openly referencing its own jukebox score and poking fun at the absurd plot (about the restoration of a Southern California roller disco, with some Greek gods in the mix), even as it plays out.
If "Xanadu" and Drury Lane sound like they have dated before, it's because this show had a post-Broadway run in downtown Chicago at what was then the Drury Lane Water Tower Place, now the Broadway Playhouse. All this means I've been to "Xanadu" twice or thrice before. You might want to stick to once.
Happily, director Rachel Rockwell's all-new production has the great benefit of Gina Milo in the lead role (played by Kerry Butler on Broadway). Milo, who showed up in "Spamalot" at Drury Lane, is a formidable comic actress with a big voice. If you're a fan of this music, she won't disappoint. Indeed, she finds a lot of new gags in the role, adding a certain Pythonesque parody to the breathy vocal stylings associated with the ballads of Newton-John, while still legitimately warbling the entire shebang. She's supported by male lead-beefcake Chris Critelli, who is amusing and appealing, if less vocally certain in the second act.
The comic Greek muses are, for my taste, a tad too broad in places — flail your arms or pucker the lips around too much, and the lightness of this material starts to deflate like an old ballon. That said, Gene Weygandt has his moments, and so does Christine Sherrill, another fine and funny vocalist who can do justice to the songs of Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. The most amusing guy on the stage, though, is ensemble member Sean Blake, who shows up in one outrageous costume after another, shimmying and grinning all the way while looking slightly terrified, no bad thing at "Xanadu."
That fear seemed to spread to most of the cast for the roller-skate finale, which was a tad tentative on opening night. This entire endeavor looked a little under-rehearsed. There are some big pauses that could use filling with faster frippery and, in the second act, you had the sense some of the performers were just getting through the show, staged on a very funny set from Kevin Depinet that looks like the kind of Athenian disco that might have brought on the Greek debt crisis, rather than fully enjoying themselves. Which is not to say you won't: there are many escapist chuckles, along with a karaoke finale that should put a smile on the most severe brow.
All in all, disco fans, I'd wait a few nights to head out to "Xanadu," allowing the show to find its wheels, chill out and raise its head to those distant 1980s gods, whose cultural blessings are, of course, unforgettable even in one's dotage.
When: Through Oct. 28
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $35-$46 at 630-530-0111 and drurylaneoakbrook.com