Thursday, 28 June 2012

Unanimous standing-o for Xanadu

Snapshot : A full-house unanimous standing ovation, even in clap-happy Vancouver, is not altogether typical. That is what the crowd on opening night June 27th felt it owed the cast and crew and the various coaches who made Xanadu such a fun nite out for them.

Compared to the 1980 cult film disaster it was based on, to say the stage play Xanadu is “gay” says it all : “carefree, joyous, bright & sunny” as well as reference to the clever creator who wrote the score’s book, Douglas Carter Beane, and to a goodly chunk of the costuming and choreography.

ACT’s version directed by Dean Paul Gibson is 80’s sentiment wrapped in tinsel, silk and spandex and reflected, metaphorically at least, in a giant disco mirror-ball.  If you like Olivia Newton-John songs, Jeff Lynne’s ELO rock and John Farrar’s lyrics such as found in “Evil Woman”, then this show is your kind of nostalgic plouffe.

Storyline : As unlikely as it gets. In 1980 nine muses, daughters of Zeus, descend from Mount Olympus to Venice Beach, CA. Head muse Clio leads them to help a struggling chalk artist realize his dream of opening a roller disco. To masque her ethereal self, Clio puts on roller skates and leg warmers and calls herself Kira. Two of Clio’s siblings, the “ugly sisters” Melpomene and Calliope, conspire to have Clio fall in love with Sonny, the chalk artist. Of course Clio will be banished from the Mount by Zeus if she does, don’t you know. Says Melpomene of their scheme : “Let us not giggle. Let us cackle.” Responds Calliope: “Cackling and hiding, listen to us. This is like children’s theater for 40 year old gay people.”

"Magic curtain" under a proscenium arch that separates actors from audience? Not on your life. This is all about ham and slapstick and goosing the crowd into joining the antics on stage. Beane's book is rife with nudge-nudge, wink-wink one-liners designed to jump past the apron and plop directly into viewers' laps.

Campy ? Kitschy ? Did I say gay ? Reviewers can’t seem to decide whether they line up with the New Yorker’s Hilton Als who calls it a “lavish and sublime confection”. Or whether they’re more on-side with the New York Post’s Clive Barnes who in a review titled “Xanadon’t” called it a “juke box musical (whose) music is not awful, simply nostalgic-generic”.  Then, after that oh-so-faint praise, damns the show mercilessly: the music he said “is the only goodish news of an absolutely ghastly show” – talking about the Beane script, not the acting on stage.

Production values : My 19-year-old daughter and I came away as if from "a pleasant dining experience" -- satisfied, surely, maybe not sated. I asked her three questions as she drove us home. (1) Strongest asset. “The music,” she said, meaning songs, lyrics, actors’ singing, and band accompaniment all.  (2) Weakest feature. “The lighting,” she said, opining that Gerald King, a 24-year veteran with ACT, was simply not on top of his game for this show. (3) Would you go again if you had to pay for your seat with your own money ? [This is almost a metaphysical question to the average 19-year-old.] “Absolutely!” she said ne’er missing a beat.

For me the three strongest assets are Lisa Stevens’ choreography and stage business for the actors, far and away the most prominent strength of the show i.m.o.  Nevermind the fancy footwork – the arm gesticulations throughout were a dance in their own right and a delight. No question I would go again just to enjoy the choreography.

Second, the acting of five people in not-quite-random order : Bonnie Panych as Calliope channels Nicola Cavendish, a comic scheming wench of eye-watering laughability throughout. Gaelen Beatty as Sonny Malone, in his debut role with ACT : as thick as  bartender Woody Boyd from Cheers but who roller skates to beat the band and sings with gusto. Vincent Tong in all his guises, but particularly his turn as “Young Danny” Maguire when he puts on a tour de force show of dance that he and Stevens designed.  Cailin Stadnyk as Euterpe, who was exceptionally engaged and electric in her execution of support roles. J. Cameron Barnett as Terpsicore-in-drag throughout – the most wink-wink actor on the stage. As the centaur his equus pawing of turf was splendid. 

Third, tie between the great roller derby set by Kevin McAllister, also Andrew Tugwell's sound design, in which the band did not drown out the singers or vice-versa. Kudos to designers, producers, performers all. 

Oh, and a fourth. The costumes by Rebekka Sorensen were terrific, except for the decidedly not-1980 high school jock jackets in the final scene. Those are from the 50's-60's Happy Days epoch, not the ON-J and ELO 1980's.

Not-quite-so-much factors :

Acting. As Clio/Kira, Marlie Collins makes her Vancouver theatre debut, and she is mostly a delight. Good strong singing if a bit “pitchy” on the higher notes. Charming and sexy with Sonny at all times. Her roller skating, however, reminded me of me on either skis or ice skates : awkward and iffy, which was a bit distracting. I was tense expecting “Call the medics!” at any moment, but clearly I empathize.

Lighting. Scriptman Beane had a whole scene in Act I involving Maguire (Simon Webb – solid throughout) and Malone admiring the Xanadu sign over the new disco ballroom and how folks would see it from blocks away. Alas, the sign remained unlit and dead to the eye. A real Hmnn?! moment.  Also during the disco scene to wrap the show : the couple-dozen disco balls descended and exploded in sparkles far too late for much impact at all. The stars should have fallen on Alabama first, not last. Pity.

Choreography. Final scene needed all the actors all sporting roller skates immediately on the stage as Kira explodes leading the delirious “Xanadu” final number. Too little, too late, too bad.

Parting shot : Two from one family went. A 19-year-old just returned from a NYC theatre course with Langara College who had seen some 8-9 plays and opined : “As good as anything I saw there !” And her dad some five decades older who attended this show with a bit of healthy skepticism around the "how" and "why" of this goofy plotline as stage play. But who left quite agreeing with Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times – this is a show both “indefensible and irresistible”.


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