'Xanadu' on stage, when good things happen to bad movies

'Xanadu' on stage, when good things happen to bad movies
NEW YORK (AP) - Is the apocalypse closer than we think?

"Xanadu," the jaw-droppingly awful 1980 film that sank Olivia Newton-John's movie career yet couldn't kill roller disco, has been turned into a fast, funny little stage musical. Quite a transformation.

It may not start a new fad for leg warmers, headbands and the thump-thump sounds of the Electric Light Orchestra, but the 90-minute show, which opened Tuesday at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, cheerfully (and with camp to spare) does a bang-up job at entertainment.

Adapter Douglas Carter Beane, author of "The Little Dog Laughed," has wisely jettisoned the movie's incomprehensible story line. Still, he has kept the character of Sonny Malone, the creatively stymied Venice, Calif., artist who wants to "make all the arts converge in one place, painting, music, dancing and maybe even athletics." The obvious forum: a roller disco.

As played by Cheyenne Jackson, who replaced the injured James Carpinello during previews, the dimwitted Sonny is sort of Li'l Abner by way of "Beach Blanket Bingo." The sturdy Jackson - sporting the best thighs on Broadway - displays a natural comic timing, not to mention a booming musical-theater voice that is comfortable with the show's pop score by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar.

The songs are taken directly from the movie and include such hits as "Magic" and "I'm Alive" as well as Newton-John's 1975 success "Have You Never Been Mellow." They function sort of like the ABBA numbers inserted into the wispy plot of "Mamma Mia!" The numbers don't exactly advance the tale, but they are there to get nods of recognition and a few laughs from hardcore "Xanadu" fans while exposing a whole new audience to the music.

At the center of the show is Kira (the Newton-John role), the beautiful Greek muse who decides to help Sonny achieve artistic fulfillment. She's played here by the delightful Kerry Butler, a veteran of the Broadway casts of "Hairspray" and the 2003 revival of "Little Shop of Horrors."

The sweetly appealing Butler, decked out in flowing blond hair, does double duty. She sings with ease as she speeds around designer David Gallo's vaguely ancient Grecian setting. The actress knows how to slyly snare a laugh, too, and Beane has given her plenty. There's even another homage of sorts to Newton-John - this muse comes equipped with an Australian accent.

Yet the evening's major giggle getters are Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, Kira's jealous sisters who plot her downfall. Muses are forbidden to fall in love with mortals, so naturally the two concoct a plan to make romance blossom between Kira and Sonny.

Hoffman, another "Hairspray" alum, literally chews the scenery with hilarious results, and Testa, a brassy lady with an equally brassy voice, knows how to take a song and shake it to the rafters.

Every once in a while, plot threatens to take over. Part of the story involves a regretful older businessman, played here by Tony Roberts (Gene Kelly in the movie), who owns the building Sonny wants to use as the disco. When young, he didn't follow his muse and ended up rich - but alone. Will Sonny take that lesson to heart?

Roberts is a game performer and a pro in delivering Beane's occasionally wry comic comments. The man doesn't get up on skates, though. That's left mostly to a small ensemble, particularly in the show's disco-ball finale - choreographed by Dan Knechtges - and done to the show's hypnotic title tune.

As Broadway musicals go, "Xanadu" is small scale. Not much set and what little space there is on stage gets partially taken up by several rows of audience members (shades of "Spring Awakening").

But size doesn't matter. Director Christopher Ashley has invested the musical with a sure sense of what it wants to accomplish. There is a unity of performer and purpose that is enormously ingratiating. "Xanadu" doesn't take itself seriously - except in its desire to deliver a good time.