Wednesday, October 17, 2007

PLAY: "Xanadu"

My experience with Xanadu was remarkably like that of the first time I ever played with a helium balloon. Fitting, since this adaptation (of what I'm told is a horrific movie) is well aware that it's full of hot air. (Hot air, unlike Douglas Carter Beane's one-liner script, isn't always bluster; here it's also momentarily uplifting.) Specifically, the first fifteen minutes are just a limp balloon, tethered to some hologram and a suspended mirror, plus the bland songs "I'm Alive" and "Magic." But then the show picks up, having inhaled all that untapped helium, and it zooms by with the ridiculous fury of a high-pitched over-the-top Australian accent (courtesy Kerry Butler) and what seem to be the unlimited vocal ranges of Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa in "Evil Woman."

From there, Christopher Ashley really finds his own pacing, with the appropriately charming "Suddenly," followed by the impressive non-disco rhythms of the slow jazz "Whenever You're Away From Me" and '40s/'80s clash on "Dancin'." Unfortunately, the helium runs out shortly after "Strange Magic" (which, like most of the show is really only held aloft by the strong, energetic voices): while the sight gags improve (roller skates and leg warmers are joined by Pegasus, a Cyclops, and a centaur), the music starts getting repetitious. The glitzy, catchy finale, "Xanadu" only manages to remind the audience that it's just watched something glitzy and catchy, but doesn't feel like a real ending. Douglas Carter Beane's played the show so much for laughs that he really doesn't have anywhere to go beyond the Broadway jokes.

Let's call a disco ball a disco ball: Xanadu is a giant in-joke that's supported by some truly gifted performers, particularly Curtis Holbrook. (Cheyenne Jackson is dead-on as a vapid Venice Beach artist, but he overplays it into a hokey, homegrown monotony.) But when the jokes pile on the shallow spine of the film, and numbers with Tony Roberts remain resolutely flat (being old and famous does not get you a free ride), it's not really much to watch. Hilton Als (of The New Yorker) calls the show anti-Broadway, but while that may have been true for the old days of Broadway, this self-referential pomp and substanceless circumstance is no different from a Mel Brooks vehicle, or, say, Spamalot, across the street.

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