The burning question at the heart of Xanadu is simple. What is Xanadu?
Merriam-Webster defines it as “an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place”. According to Wikipedia, Xanadu is both a 1980 flop cult classic film featuring Olivia Newton-John and hit songs by Electric Light Orchestra and a 2007 Tony-nominated Broadway musical comedy that originally starred Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson. They both take their title from the Chinese province that was the capital of Kublai Khan’s Yuan dynasty, originally dubbed Xanadu by a Samuel Taylor Coleridge epic poem.
But when it comes to Pittsburgh CLO’s Xanadu, I tend to agree with book writer Douglas Carter Beane’s definition of Xanadu told to us by Melpomene early in the show. Their Xanadu is “a gift so grand none of us truly knows what it is.”
If you do venture to CLO’s intimate cabaret venue to figure out what Xanadu means, you won’t leave disappointed if the answer still eludes you. Like ignorance, this show is pure bliss.
Xanadu opens with artist Sonny Malone (Reed Allen Worth) humorously lamenting his inability to create while finishing up a chalk mural of a group of muses from Ancient Greece. Eventually, having heard his cries for inspiration, they burst into reality, and we are introduced to leader of the muses Clio (Olivia Vadnais) and her eight sisters including Melpomene (Drew Leigh Williams) and Calliope (Lara Hayhurst).
Clio, initially mistakenly believing that she has arrived in Venice, Italy in 1780 as opposed to the artistic wasteland that was Venice, California in 1980, decides to inspire Sonny to reach his creative destiny. So as not to break one of the cardinal rules of musehood by revealing her true demi-goddess identity, Clio disguises herself as “Kira”, a roller skating, leg warmer-wearing, young woman with a very thick Australian accent.
Jealous of their sister’s inevitable granting of Xanadu by Zeus, Melpomene and Calliope place a spell on Clio that will make her fall in love with Sonny (another big no-no). Further threatening her secret identity and relationship with Sonny is the appearance of Danny Maguire (Tim Brady). He’s the owner of the titular theater that Sonny hopes to turn into a roller rink and the last mortal that Clio inspired.
If the plot sounds convoluted and wacky to you, then you’re in line with most movie critics in the 80’s who raked the film over the coals for its ludicrous setup.
But, likely by the grace of the synth-tastic tunes by ELO including “Evil Woman”, “Don’t Walk Away”, and the title song, Xanadu lived long enough to get a meta parody facelift by Beane. His script, originally written for a cast of nine, is overflowing with winning punchlines that run the gamut from groan-worthy to clever quip to laugh out loud funny to the unfortunate use of Ebonics. The score, with music and lyrics by ELO Member Jeff Lynne and Olivia Newton-John songsmith John Farrar, slightly overstays its welcome with a (spoiler alert!) post-curtain call encore medley, but every song is so joyous that you’ll feel nostalgic for the 80’s even if you weren’t alive then.
Director Kate Galvin has given the show another facelift by reducing the cast from nine to the amazing quadruple threat (singing, dancing, acting, AND roller skating) quintet of actors I named above. This innovation allows for tons of imaginative doubling and fun interactions with the cast, the audience, and the band.
Five actors may be playing upwards of double that amount of roles, but there is not an ounce of strain evident among them. Each member of the company was superlative in their own special way.
Vadnais and Williams are the undisputed standouts of the group. Vadnais nails every musical note and comedic moment all while gliding around the cabaret on roller skates. She leads the cast just as Clio leads the muses, with an infectious twinkle in her eye. Calliope may get the joke about chewing the scenery, but it’s truly Williams’s Melpomene that is making a five course meal out of Britton Mauk’s (literally) flashy and graffiti-covered set. Whether she’s perpetrating strange magic or leading her siren daughters in mean-spirited melody, she is deliciously evil and impossible to take your eyes off of.
Reed Allen Worth fits perfectly into the goofy dude persona and tiny neon shorts (credit to Stephanie Shaw for those and all the show’s other tight and bright ensembles) that make Sonny the sweet, down to Earth romantic lead we all wish existed in real life. On their tracks as Calliope and Danny respectively, Lara Hayhurst and Tim Brady carry off the show’s broadest and most heartfelt moments with tremendous ease and skill.
Similarly, Galvin and choreographer Mark Burrell toned down some of campier aspects of the Broadway production for their Xanadu but spared none of the smile-inducing silliness inherent to the show.
Musical comedy heaven is indeed a place on Earth. And that place is the Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.
Xanadu plays at the CLO Cabaret through December 17. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos by Matt Polk