‘Xanadu’ at Signature Theatre by Julia L. Exline

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Signature Theatre presents Xanadu, a hilariously decadent treat written by Douglas Carter Beane, with music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, and direction and choreography by Matthew Gardiner. Based on the infamous 1980 film musical flop, starring Olivia Newton-John and screen legend Gene Kelly, this ‘laugh at yourself’ stage version is filled with corny jokes, disco balls, glow sticks, and #1 hit songs from the film.

Erin Weaver (center, as Kira) with her Greek Muses (from left to right) Nickolas Vaughan, Kellee Knighten Hough, Nova Y. Payton, Sherri L. Edelen, Mark Chandler, and Jamie Eacker. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The time is 1980, the place: Venice Beach, California. As I twist my neon glow stick bracelet around my wrist (a fun little gift given to the audience as we file in), and take in the set, designed by Misha Kachman, I can’t help but like this production before it even begins. Palm trees surround a lit-up sign that hangs low over the ceiling, reading, VENICE”. A pier gives a second level to the set, and beachy sounds like seagulls and waves (provided by Sound Designer Matt Rowe) precede the performance.

A quintessential 80’s piece, everything about this production is amped up. Lighting Designer Chris Lee does not disappoint, with the trunks of the palm trees blazing vivid colors throughout the show, and disco balls that refract light into a million revolving spheres. Kathleen Geldard brings the 80’s back with her costumes, managing to put tie-dye patterns, headbands, satin shorts, roller blades and leg warmers together in a single outfit. As the majority of the characters are Greek Goddesses, sparkly, gauzy dresses also sweep the stage, and bouncy curls sit atop shoulders that have been liberally painted with glitter. The effect is remarkable, and coupled with their airy choreography, I would not have been surprised if the goddesses had risen into the air and taken flight.

Loveably dense and not-too-bright artist Sonny Malone (a wonderfully kooky Charlie Brady) laments about his artwork over his newest piece; – a chalk drawing of the seven Greek muses. Frustrated and discouraged, Sonny leaves his sketch to craft himself a suicide note. In his absence, the muses come to life (with the catchy song, “I’m Alive”), and Clio, the leader of the Muses, sets off to save Sonny. Erin Weaver shows tremendous comedic timing and vocal range as Clio, who renames herself Kira, with an excellent Australian accent to match. It is Clio’s job to inspire Sonny’s art, and does so by wheeling around the stage in roller blades (and at times, hilariously stomping around with just one), giving him the idea to open a roller disco. However, meddlers threaten to derail their new dream, from a greedy landowner Danny Maguire (Harry A. Winter) to two  jealous sisters: Melpomene (Nova Y. Payton) and Calliope (Sherri L. Edelen).

Calliope (Sherri L. Edelen, left) and Melpomene (Nova Y. Payton) cast a spell on their sister Kira (Erin Weaver) on the streets of Venice with Sonny (Charlie Brady). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Payton and Edelen are hysterical in their rendition of “Evil Woman,” in which they plot their  wicked scheme against Clio who they hate because she has the title of The Leader of the Muses and her father Zeus has given her Xanadu. As a muse, Clio is forbidden to fall in love with a mortal, reveal her true identity, or create art herself, all of which will happen if their curse is effective (but is it?).

Flamboyant and bold, Xanadu packs all of the decadence of a brownie sundae without the calorie count. The cast easily bounces off each other in a witty repartee, and each actor brings uniqueness to their roles. Mark Chandler, who plays Thalia (and  other roles), has facial expressions that prove to be just as hysterical as one of the many quippy one-liners. Sherri L. Edelen is rip-roarious as the dim Calliope, and Nickolas Vaughan, Kellee Knighten Hough, and Mark Chandler round out the rest of the fun cast. A particularly wonderful number mixes 80’s punk-rock music with 1930’s swing in “Dancin.’’ The silly and unique dance moves by Director/Choreographer Matthew Gardiner poke fun at themselves while still being a joy to watch, and the script delights in self-deprecation (“listen to us cackle and giggle…this is like children’s theatre for 40 year-old gay people!”).

The Greek Muse Clio (Erin Weaver) tries to get on the good side of the Almighty Zeus (Harry A. Winter). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Special mention the the four excellent musicians: Musical Director and Conductor Gabriel Mangiante on Keyboards 1,  Jenny Cartney on Keyboards 2, Steven Walker on Guitar, and Paul Keesling on Drums. You rocked the place!

Gaudy? Maybe. Silly? Perhaps…but that being said, I have not had so much fun at the theatre in a long time (and as someone that frequents the theatre, that’s saying something!) Put Xanadu down on your list of guilty pleasures and pick up a ticket today. This is one that you should not miss!

Running Time: 105 minutes, without an intermission.

Xanadu plays through July 1, 2012, at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, Virginia. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or order them online. More details.

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