Sunday, October 28, 2007

A PLACE WHERE DREAMS COME TRUE. James Wolcott's rave seems not to have attracted many tourists, as I got great orchestra seats at half-price two hours before curtain, and the crowd seemed highly local. But Xanadu at the Helen Hayes doesn't have the feel of a show hanging on for dear life: the cast seemed as charmed by the proceedings as the audience. As well they might, because Xanadu has pulled off something miraculous: it has retrieved from the brackish wells of camp something clear and sparking.

Staging a 1980 roller-disco bomb with old ELO and Olivia Newton-John songs sounds like a stoned after-hours fantasy at Don't Tell Mama, but author Douglas Carter Beane and director Christopher Ashley found a real theatrical opportunity in it. The story (Greek muse and her sisters visit L.A. in the leg-warmer era, inspire street artist to create a nightclub; muse and artist fall precariously in love) is frankly ridiculous, and the show wrings plenty of laughs out of muse Kira's unGrecian spunk and Australian accent, street-artist Sonny's big dumb hunkdom, the vacillation of moneyman Danny between sour cynicism and muse-touched empathy, and -- in a manner that dates back to The Boys from Syracuse at least -- ancient Greeks full of up-to-the-minute wisecracks (like Mercury punctuating Kira's lament with "Bitch, I don't know your life").

But though they shoot the conceit full of holes, they leave its vital organs intact. If Sonny's and Kira's dream of a roller disco-slash-arts complex is silly, it's still a dream; if their exigencies (jealous sisters, financial concerns) are comical, they still present a conflict. And the high style and wit of the production helps raise the stakes for them. When shoe-skated Kira dances Sonny around the stage in a rollerized phone booth, it's a gag on the roller-disco theme, but it's also a moment of high emotion for star-crossed will-be lovers. When Kira flees from Sonny, it's funny when he pulls off one of her skates (leaving her to scooter-step around upstage), but sad (in a funny way) that the big dunce is left with feelings of loss he's utterly unequipped to express.

And when, in Zeus' court, we hear that the mating of man and muse will leave mankind bereft of creativity and condemned to musicals "from the box that is Juke," the gag is Olympian and makes Xanadu its own punchline: the ill-attended but much-appreciated little musical in a bandbox theatre is itself proof that while talent may, in our grim era, be forced to struggle, its persistence can defy even the will of the gods. Xanadu is an in-joke that anyone can enjoy.

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