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Elizabeth Stanley Lifts ‘Xanadu’ to Place Where Nobody Dared to Go

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HollywoodChicago.com Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 4.0/5.0
Play Rating: 4.0/5.0

CHICAGO – If classics such as “A Chorus Line” and “Les Miserables” willfully suggest the existence of a secured, calculated recipe for a Broadway hit, Christopher Ashley’s “Xanadu” is a concoction that has once again gleefully tipped over this admittedly elusive boiling pot.

Based on the outlandishly heinous 1980 film of the same name, the stage version of “Xanadu” shyly and skillfully stormed the quaint Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway in 2007, knocking down every upturned nose and preconceived theatah notion in its wake. Heck, many people had even entered betting pools to monitor how quickly this turkey would cook.

But the narrative that consumptively sunk Olivia Newton-John’s career into 1980’s oblivion has fashioned an outrageously sharp musical production. Now, thanks to Kyle DeSantis and his folks at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, Chicagoans can bask in the same comedic splendor made complete with those nostalgic legwarmers that have just been itching to make a second cultural breakthrough.

Director Christopher Ashley is again at the helm of this markedly successful New York transfer. The minimalist and coy theatrics conjoined with Douglas Carter Beane’s acid tongued book situate the production perfectly on the intimate Drury Lane stage.

Afterall, “Xanadu” primarily found critical success due to its refusal to hide artistic negligence behind lavish sets and technical crafts, a cover-up style that has defined many recent theatrical ventures. Stripped of all the sumptuous production values that typically sprinkle the Broadway stages, “Xanadu” relies instead on-gasp!- its core components, namely its book, score, and performer ability.

If one were to fully grasp the dreadful slop of a narrative that was the 1980 film, he may either erupt into a hyena-like laughing fit or more likely may suffer severe physiological trauma at the mere suggestion of such toxic drip. In order to spare you from such drastic fates, I will describe the plot structure simply: Venice Beach sidewalk chalk artist meets girl. Girl is secretly a demigoddess from Mt. Olympus. Boy and girl fall in love while building a roller disco in Los Angeles, copious disco balls in tow. Phew.

Elizabeth Stanley (Kira) and ensemble in Xanadu at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place
Elizabeth Stanley (Kira) and ensemble in “Xanadu” at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

Perhaps it’s the sheer ingenuity of his craftsmanship, or maybe he gulped one too many Frescas the night he sat down to pen such a work, but Mr. Beane’s pointedly barbed musical translation is a blended cataract of mock homage and rooted sincerity.

His text manages to both ridicule and celebrate those 1980s cultural artifacts that we find both mystifying and inexplicably fascinating. Whereas the film version was viewed as hollowed plop in the timeline of cinema, the musical is a bitingly self-aware and assured piece. This time around, the actors are in on the joke, instead of serving as the joke themselves.

For the most part, the actors serve Beane’s original diction honorably. Elizabeth Stanely as the Greek muse Clio/Kira is a devouring presence onstage even in roller skates.

A vocalist of top-tier versatility, Stanley oscillates deliberately and with panache through each of the score’s era-based genres. Stanely has also proven herself an astutely schematic actor in her own right; by belting the book’s top comedic notes as Aussie Kira while managing to reap a much-deserved emotionality from her audience as muse Clio, Stanley has positioned herself as a formidable rising star.

Her renditions of the Electric Light Orchestra’s score pieces are at once droll and haunting. It’s time we forgive her for that stint in last year’s disastrous “Cry-Baby,” isn’t it? I can assure you that Dionysus has.

Elizabeth Stanley (Kira) and Max Von Essen (Sonny) star in Xanadu at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place
Elizabeth Stanley (Kira) and Max Von Essen (Sonny) star in “Xanadu” at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place.
Photo credit: Carol Rosegg

However, the rest of the cast may need to take a page from Stanley’s polyurethane book. Max Von Essen as the tube sock-sporting, denim cutoff-wearing Sonny Malone lacks the embodiment of the character that is essential to comedy.

The posthumous comedic endowment of the film that Beane vehemently dotes on is its absurd sincerity. As Charna Halpern, the Chicago improv trainer who has produced the likes of Mike Myers and Tina Fey postulates, there must be truth in the comedy in order for it to be funny.

Cerebrally, Stanley is aware of the textual jokes; yet onstage she plays the character as if she were auditioning for a role in “Madame Butterfly”. Von Essen lacks the execution of a balance between Sonny’s vapid oafishness and his endearing earnestness. This inequity in lead craftsmanship poses a sematic threat to the cohesiveness of the production.

Max Von Essen stars as Sonny in Xanadu at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place
Max Von Essen stars as Sonny in “Xanadu” at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place.
Photo credit: Alissa Norby

The remaining ensemble proffer sparkling performances, although a higher level of comfort with Beane’s book and Ashley’s direction would help to create a more symphonic piece.

Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa’s comic improvisation became synonymous with the Broadway production, yet Chicago’s Sharon Wilkins and Joanna Glushak as the two “E-Evil” muse sisters noticeably refrain from imbuing this one with much Brechtian audience engagement. In a production that is a soaring 90-minute romp of quips and cracks, patron interaction and skat dialogue can never be superfluous.

StarMore theater reviews from critic Alissa Norby.
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Despite this, “Xanadu” has once again usurped the throne for musical theatre entertainment and has secured its place among Chicago’s lavish touring and sit-down Broadway productions. We may have lost a witch and a Baby, but what Ashley’s presentation voids in spectacle it makes up for in pure, creative and gluttonous entertainment.

It’s time to turn off the 80s music in our shamed Peugeots, strap on our skates, and crank up that electric-sync music of E.L.O. in the comfort and public image safety of a theatre. And if that’s not enough to get you there, did I mention there are glowsticks?

“Xanadu” has an open run at the Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place at 175 E. Chestnut in Chicago. The show runs Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. To purchase tickets and for more information, visit here or call 312-977-1710.

For a complete listing of all shows and reviews in Chicago, visit our partner TheatreInChicago.com. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Alissa Norby

Staff Writer

© 2009 Alissa Norby, HollywoodChicago.com

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