Mac-Haydn Theatre, Chatham

The movie was a box office flop. Is the musical better, or worse?

By Andrew Andrews

Tezz Yancey and Lucy Rhoades in Xanadu by Douglas Carter Beane, Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, directed by Robin Campbell. Original photos by Ann Kielbasa.

Sonny Malone is a struggling artist, creating elaborate chalk drawings on the streets of Venice, California in the early 1980s.

When Clio, the Greek muse of history, sees Sonny penning a suicide note, she decides to intervene in the form of a roller-skating bombshell from Australia named Kira.

Believing Sonny can regain his inspiration by opening an abandoned theatre as a roller disco, Kira convinces Sonny to meet with its owner: a musician-turned-real-estate-mogul named Maguire.

Maguire agrees to give the duo just one day to restore the building and make it a success, or he’ll bulldoze everything tomorrow to replace it with luxury condos.

Based on the 1980 box office flop starring Olivia Newton-John that eventually became a cult classic for its mediocrity, this 2007 parody musical was a Broadway success for four months, winning the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and Drama Desk Award for Best Book.

Andrew Burton Kelley and Julia Hajjar (not shown) join Ricky Dobbs, Amber Mawande-Spytek, Rachel Pantazis, Rhoades, Julie Galorenzo, Patrick MacLennan and Rachel Pantazis to complete the cast.

When a movie is so universally panned by critics and shunned by moviegoers on its release, it only makes sense that the best way to turn it into a smash Broadway musical would be to parody the original.

Douglas Carter Beane’s Xanadu does exactly that, replacing the bad acting and retro-primitive special effects of its namesake with an extremely campy reinterpretation, hoping to place it in the category of “it’s so bad, it’s good.”

Although the film itself was a disaster, the soundtrack was extremely popular, featuring some of Olivia Newton-John’s most famous and beloved songs, as well as hits by Electric Light Orchestra, The Tubes, Cliff Richard and Gene Kelly.

Sadly, the musical adaptation not only lampoons the original movie, it applies the same buffoonery to the undeserving songs as well. The original Broadway cast recording is practically unlistenable, turning hits like “Magic,” “Xanadu” and “Suddenly” into drunken karaoke versions of themselves.

As Mac-Haydn productions are always delightfully true to the source, the cast of this Xanadu performs the musical numbers in that same style—insulting as it is—which results in an experience that “is like children’s theatre for forty-year-old gay people,” to quote Clio’s sister Calliope.

As was the case with David Bowie a few years back, Newton-John’s unexpected recent passing has drawn new attention to her music, including audiences too young to have any nostalgia for it. For those with no emotional investment in her catalog, perhaps the timing of this reprise couldn’t be more apropos. But for those of us who grew up singing along to the these tunes on the radio with zero irony, the musical Xanadu couldn’t return at a more unfortunate time.

On my 1-to-5 scale, a 2-star rating would mean that I wish I had never attended the performance. That’s not the case with this production, because I’m actually glad to have seen just how intentionally bad it is.

But if the opportunity ever presents itself again, you can bet I’ll pass.

Andrew Andrews attended Xanadu at Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham on Thursday, September 15, 2022 @ 7:00pm to write this review.