A fun, funky "Xanadu" at Cuesta

A movie flop from the ’80s has been transformed into an improved — and wacky — stage show in a campy new production

slinn@thetribunenews.comApril 24, 2013 

Shaley Gunther, as Kira, and the Muses in “Xanadu.”

JAY THOMPSON

Start with a healthy helping of Greek mythology. Stir in a scoop of stage magic.

Now add roller skates, romance and irresistible ’80s pop hits.

Mount Olympus meets Venice Beach in the musical “Xanadu,” running Friday through May 5 at Cuesta College’s Cultural and Performing Arts Center.

According to director bree valle, “Xanadu” is “cheesy, campy and corny — the Triple Crown of musical theater.”

“When I’m rehearsing, I’m constantly laughing, so that’s a good sign,” said valle, who decided to bring “Xanadu” to Cuesta after seeing a production at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. “It’s so wacky. It’s ridiculously fun.”

The name “Xanadu” should be familiar to anyone who remembers the 1980 movie musical starring Michael Beck as struggling artist Sonny Malone and Olivia Newton-John as the mythical muse who inspires him.

Roundly reviled by critics for its paper-thin plot, muddy cinematography and uninspired acting, “Xanadu” flopped in theaters. (The soundtrack by Electric Light Orchestra and Newton-John’s producer, John Farrar, on the other hand, was a commercial hit.) In fact, a double feature of “Xanadu” and 1980’s “Can’t Stop the Music” inspired copywriter John J.B. Wilson to create the Golden Raspberry Awards, celebrating the worst in cinema.

“The movie was an absolute dog,” valle said, but the stage version is a vast improvement.

The new “Xanadu,” which opened on Broadway in 2007, features a script by “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane, and music and lyrics by Farrar and ELO frontman Jeff Lynne.

“(They’ve) taken the best parts of the movie … and kept all the great music,” valle said, while streamlining the storyline. The result is a good- natured, family-friendly spoof that embraces the movie’s sillier aspects.

As “Xanadu” opens, Sonny, a sweet, dimwitted Valley Boy, has just completed his latest chalk mural, a group portrait of the “ancient Greek arty chicks” that inspire creative types. But this hapless guy can’t get the details right. 

“He’s always second-guessing himself,” said Greg Threlkeld, who shares the role of Sonny with Austin Whitford. “He’s just a failure as far as his life as an artist goes.”

Suicidal Sonny is about to jump off the Santa Monica Pier when Clio, the youngest and perkiest of the muses, shows up disguised as an Australian roller girl named Kira. (Mariah Rose Allchin and Shaley Gunther share the role.) She convinces Sonny to funnel all that frustration into creating a place where the arts can intermingle: a roller disco.

The two pick out the perfect venue, a crumbling old theater called Xanadu. The owner, big band leader-turned-real estate mogul Danny Macguire (William Benjamin), has his doubts about Sonny, but he instantly takes a shine to Kira, who reminds him of a woman from his musical past.

Meanwhile, Kira’s sisters are jealous of her position as “mistress of the muses.” Brassy Melpomene (Lauren Josephs), and her high-energy sidekick, Calliope (Rainey Forzetting), vow to make sis fall in love with Sonny — and thus lose her immortality.

All this romance, infighting and intrigue play out in front of a Greek-style colonnade designed by technical director Richard Jackson. The actors — who include Lucas Butler, Chris Kamas, Rachel Long and Mary Jean Trujillo as the rest of the muses — are accompanied by a live band led by musical director and keyboard player Jumi Kim, seated to the side of the stage.

“The music is great. It’s upbeat and fun and classic ’80s,” Josephs said of the soundtrack, which includes such hits as “Evil Woman,” “Magic” and “Don’t Walk Away.” “There’s not one song in the show I don’t enjoy listening to.”

To bring those songs to life, choreographer Jude Clark Warnisher said she sought inspiration from ancient Greek pottery and the TV show “Solid Gold.”

“When I’m trying to do something like this, I look at movement from the time. … I do historical research, but I try to leave that in my self- conscience,” explained Warnisher, who founded the Variable Velocity Performance Group with Diana Stanton. She taught dance part-time at Cuesta until recent budget cuts eliminated her position — and the fledgling dance program.

The cast of “Xanadu” doesn’t just sing and dance, either. Several cast members spend part of the production gliding around on vintage roller skates, their colorful costumes — borrowed from Weber State — a mishmash of romantic, rainbow-hued tunics and scrunched-up legwarmers, fanny packs and cutoff jean shorts.

As Calliope tartly observes at one point, “This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people!”

Warnisher and valle agreed that “Xanadu,” with its zany plot and happy-go-lucky message of following one’s dreams, is the perfect way to pay tribute to Cuesta’s ailing performing arts program.

With department funding slashed considerably, it may be years before the college can mount such an elaborate production again, valle said.

“It’s good that we’re going out with something so over-the-top,” Warnisher said.

IF YOU GO

"Xanadu"
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through May 5
Cultural and Performing Arts Center, Cuesta College
$15, $10 students and children
546-3198, www.cpactickets.cuesta.edu

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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