The simple reason is that only the doltish could fail to improve on something so awful -- and the Xanadu creative team, headed by playwright Douglas Carter Beane and director Christopher Ashley, is clearly not a convention of dolts. Indeed, they have taken the movie's bare essentials and transformed them into a cute 85-minute spoof that works more effectively than all but the strongest believers might ever have hoped.
The enterprising perpetrators have retained most of the film's John Farrar-Jeff Lynne score -- which yielded five Top 40 hits including "Suddenly" and "I'm Alive" -- but they've only held onto the basic outline of the deservedly-maligned Richard Danus-Marc Rubel plot, which focuses on the relationship between Greek muse Clio and California artist-turned-hopeful roller disco owner, Sonny Malone. In its place, Beane has dreamed up a much funnier narrative than the film, once again proving the knack for off-beat comedy he evidenced in As Bees in Honey Drown and only tentatively in the more recent The Little Dog Laughed.
In jimmying this high-wattage idiocy, Beane has ratcheted up the complications for well-meaning Clio (Kerry Butler). He introduces eight sister muses to help (or hinder) her flowering affair with nice guy Sonny (Cheyenne Jackson). The busy octet includes oldest sister Melpomene (Mary Testa) and Calliope (Jackie Hoffman), who decide to take Clio down a peg by putting a falling-in-love-with-a-mortal curse on her.
The pair proves to be true comic-relief figures, much as Cinderella's step-sisters are sight-and-sound gags in many versions of that fairy tale. (Strengthening the allusion, there's a moment when Sonny gloms on to one of Clio's roller skates, leaving Clio to flee with only one skate.) As for the always terrific Testa and the terrific-when-she-wants-to-be Hoffman, their broads-being-broad tandem act is a sight to behold and revel in.
Added to the Melpomene-Calliope amusement are any number of jokes concerning the first Xanadu, as well as gags about musical movies or theater pieces in general. Admittedly, some intended yuks are a bit too yucky. Nevertheless, there are a series of surprises provided by Ashley and choreographer Dan Knechtges, including a wowee finale built around the title tune. Set designer David Gallo, costume designer David Zinn, and wigmaker Charles G. LaPointe all deserve kudos for colorfully complementing the show's invigorated cast.
Butler is pretty and properly silly as Clio -- often speaking with an Olivia Newton-John-affected Australian accent. Jackson, temporarily subbing for an injured James Carpinello, is an appealingly forthright Sonny. (Editor's Note: Jackson will be out of the show from July 17-27, due to a prior commitment. The role will be played by ensemble members Andre Ward and Curtis Holbrook during that period.) Tony Roberts, who never disappoints, is likeable as the gruff Danny Maguire, the disco's owner and Clio's former flame, as well as Clio's dad, the gruffer Zeus.
Xanadu may irk musical comedy lovers who wish the genre's current craftsmen would move forward rather then offering self-referential backward glances. And this piece ups the ante not only by mocking tired conventions of live musicals but celluloid ones as well. Beane even anticipates the criticism by giving Zeus a stentorian speech that goes in part, "The theater? They'll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter's catalogue, throw it on a stage and call it a show." That's just what these dapper folks have done. And eureka! They've created a confection the actual Mount Olympus muses are likely smiling on this very minute.