Xanadu (M. Proctor Theatre Guild of Grace Church, 2015)

Xanadu poster

Xanadu poster
M. Proctor’s production of the musical Xanadu is a pleasantly ramshackle diversion, filled with enough hit-or-miss goofy bits to send just about anybody home with a smile on their face. I remember when the announcement of a Broadway adaptation of the 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie was met with universal groans (mine included), but those were replaced by dumb grins once the show opened in 2007. I was in the audience then, having reluctantly purchased a ticket on a night when all the highbrow shows were sold out. It remains one of my favorite theatergoing experiences.

It turns out that adapting a dud, winking and nudging the audience the whole time, is a more satisfying recipe than adding music to old TV shows or dumb movie comedies. Sure, it’s a jukebox musical, that artistically dubious form, but the players are in on the joke (with dozens more where that came from.) To stage a satisfying production, you need performers who get the references, who can sing Jeff Lynne and John Farrar’s songs confidently, and a band that keeps the whole thing moving. M. Proctor’s version manages all of those. It’s a fun show.

Dick Douglass’ set is simple – essentially a roller skating rink, with audience on three sides; a flexible playing area. There was a nice surprise near the end of the first act, something that seems obvious but was executed perfectly. As it came together before our eyes, I found its powerful iconography unexpectedly satisfying. For a lighting designer, the Grace Church auditorium is difficult, because there aren’t many places to put instruments. Michael Youngs, Ed Killian, and Eric Manley did a decent job, considering. A show in 3/4 round makes things even harder, so I wasn’t really bothered that everything we saw from our seats on the stage right side was lit in profile. It bugged my companions though, who argued that the creative team made a choice to present the show in a manner that couldn’t be lit in the space. (They aren’t wrong. I sympathize because I just barely lit a 3/4 round Drowsy Chaperone this past fall.) The team might have tried running the two followspots from platforms on the sides – that would have at least offered us a better look from time to time.

Mark Young’s sound design was very good, solving the problem of where to put speakers by integrating them into the set; Young placed them on poles around the edge of the rink, facing away from the singers to avoid feedback. It worked. Will Lanfear’s wigs frequently tried to steal the show (a good thing in a show that rewards scene-stealing), and the costumes (credited to Peggy Frantz, Cathy Frank, and the cast) were often cringe-worthily hilarious. One outfit in particular, halfway into the second act, was perfectly over-the-top stupid – I won’t spoil it, except to say it wonderfully captured the spirit of the material and this production.

I would have liked more movement – many of the songs were performed while the singers stood in one place, and the actors sometimes didn’t know their blocking well enough to maintain the location of a given scene. Also, although the roller skating wasn’t terrible, it wasn’t great, either. It was sometimes awkward enough to distract the performers and the audience, and so didn’t add the humor it should have. Those are minor complaints – the material provides a robust grab bag of material, and more of it scored than not.

Mick Jagger sang “I know it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, but I like it.” Xanadu is a dumb musical about a dumb movie, which by the rule of double-negativity ends up being really smart. By the time the title song was enthusiastically sung during the finale, I was clapping and singing along, every care forgotten. So yeah. I know it’s only a jukebox musical, but I liked it.