The Hangar decamps for the beach with its final summer show. Venice Beach, CA to be precise. With a helium-light plot, Xanadu mixes hits from the cult Olivia Newton-John film that was a hybrid of songs from ONJ’s main writer, John Farrar and Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra. Douglas Carter Beane provides the sharp, witty book.
Down-on-his-luck chalk mural artist Sonny is ready to cash it in, when he meets the mysterious Kira, actually (Clio the muse of history, one of the nine Greek muses who come to life from his mural. She has disguised herself with leg-warmers, roller-skates and an Australian accent, naturally.) Now he suddenly has a BIG dream, to resurrect an abandoned theater on the boardwalk (Xanadu) and turn it into a roller-disco / art-gallery. There is of course trouble with the developer (ex-clarinet player Danny), jealous sister-muses, and Zeus almighty.
Yes, the plot is that silly and it works like gangbusters, as the disco glitter ball and neon pastels of the 80s are gloriously resurrected.
Director/choreographer Devanand Janki and a crack design team create the laid-back, fun-loving vibe of Southern Cal (ironically propelled by UK/Aussie beats) in a fast-paced and deliriously daft dream of a show. Just five actors play all the main roles, backed up by an interactive, costume-changing four-piece onstage band (Music Director Zeek Smith on keyboard, Emani Barber also on keyboard and bass, Sue Terwilliger on lead guitar, and Chelsea Catalone propelling all on percussion.)
Beane mocks juke-box musicals, musicals from films, Clash of the Titans, as well as his source material but still roots all in a provisional sincerity—old-style musical (think 1920s) meets 21st century irony. But lightly, easy on the meta. This is high camp as it should be served, with a graceful touch worthy of Noel Coward.
Diana Huey manages to be both pert and powerful, innocent and seducing, in the ONJ role of Clio. Her singing can caress the fizzy pop of 80s ballads, purring and slinking her way around the melody; grab hold of a sharp power-belt, and even bounce in 40s jazz stylings.
Adante Carter is all goofball at first as her love-interest Sonny. Flipping fast from despair to delight, he wears the character’s innocence brightly. His lanky body manages to fall into the choreography, a deceptive clown. He is a born rock crooner, pulling out the stops in “Don’t Walk Away.” As partners, the two quickly grab our hearts.
Villainy is supplied by sisters Melpomeme (Desiree Rodriguez) and Caliope (Lea Savola). Their joint rendition of Evil Woman brings down the house, Rodriguez’ clarion belt entwined with Savola’s baritone ba-da-bas. Rodriguez is slinky, arch and playfully nasty in the all-out vein of a classic Disney villainess, while Savola is all boppin sidekick (sometimes just ßa bit behind on the plan).
Sonny’s competitor/mentor is Danny (Graham Stevens.) Danny, too, had his dreams, back in the 40s, just after the war, when he had a muse called Kitty. This leads to the delightful pastiche number between Stevens and Huey “Whenever You’re Away from Me.” Stevens lends it a dreamy big-band touch. His comedy works with sharp edges and suddenness. His doubling as Zeus is priceless.
Janki’s choreography is simple yet highly playful (see what a phone booth can do.) The design is effortless yet abundant. Both scenic designer John Iacovelli and costume designer Dixon Reynolds play with a soft rainbow palette. Beginning with a semi-realistic boardwalk, bordered with iron rails, Iacovelli manages a number of magical reveals with each change of scene. Reynolds’ costumes lightly touch the fanciful. Cory Pattack’s lights splash the set with wonderful washes of light, from SoCal seaside, to deep disco.
Also of note, this cast is all people of color. The Hangar under Artistic Director Michael Barakiva keeps upping the bar on inclusion.
Leave your weary brain at home and jump into the waves. You’ll come away refreshed.
Xanadu music & lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, book by Douglas Carter Beane; directed and choreographed by Devanand Janki; at the Hangar Theatre through Sept 1; tickets 607-273-2787 (hangartheatre.org)