Critic's PickSummers in Cincinnati tend to have theater in short supply. Thanks to the Carnegie Center in Covington, there’s a bounty of fizzy fun in the form of the very tongue-in-cheek musical Xanadu, staged by Alan Patrick Kenny. The one-time artistic director and founder of New Stage Collective has been away from Cincinnati for several years, first providing musical entertainment on a cruise ship and then in Los Angeles earning a master’s degree in directing from UCLA. Both experiences have probably contributed to this show, which is a lot of silly fluff (the sort of lighthearted frivolity that appeals to people on a cruise) and some cleverly conceived stage work that adds up to a fine piece of August showmanship.
If you remember the crash-and-burn musical film Xanadu from 1980, which became a cult favorite because it was so cheesy, you’re only part way to grasping what’s onstage at the Otto M. Budig Theatre. The film was translated into a witty but intentionally foolish stage musical in 2007, and thanks to Kenny’s deft sense of humor and inventive theatricality, this production is great fun to watch. The plot of the movie is intact: A muse (played on screen by Pop singer Olivia Newton-John) lands in Venice, Calif., to inspire a less-than-talented, depressed chalk artist to greater things. This being Southern California in 1980, “greater things” means turning a concert hall into a roller-skating disco.
The underlying message of the transformative power of art actually becomes a happy theme of Xanadu, and Douglas Carter Beane’s daffy script pokes all kinds of fun at the 1980s. But it doesn’t stop there: There’s also lots of teasing about the art form of musical theater.
Xanadu poses some daunting physical challenges, especially for the modest facility at the Carnegie. Kenny has met every obstacle head on: A mural that comes to life? Check. A scene with Pegasus flying the leading lady up to Mount Olympus? Check. In fact, the entire theater is transformed quite nicely (by means of a mirrored disco ball, some stage fog, gauzy drapes and — at one point — a fan) into a posh ballroom and then the home of the gods. You have to see it to believe it, but believe it you will, as long as you bring your sense of humor.
Humor is the operative ingredient, and Kenny’s cast has the talent to play all of this tomfoolery with comic timing and the right flourishes to keep it funny without pushing it too far. Margaret-Ellen Jeffreys has just the right wide-eyed but sweet and dedicated presence to make the central character of the ancient Greek muse Clio both charming and entertaining. Since the movie role was played by Newton-John, Clio transforms herself into Kira, complete with an Australian accent and legwarmers. She does fine on roller skates, too. Blaine Krauss, a junior at UC’s CCM, perfectly plays the eager but naive artist Sonny Malone who Clio is destined to inspire. Singing ELO’s “Suddenly” from a phone booth, he switches back and forth between a goofy kid falling in love and a suave lounge lizard. He and Jeffreys have mastered this music, and their breathy stylizations conjure up the songs’ saccharine romanticism.
The cast members behind Jeffreys and Kraus add considerably to the hilarity. Playing Kira/Clio’s sisters, the Muses from antiquity, as well as numerous other mythological characters, they pop up everywhere in the theater. Miranda McGee and Eileen Earnest play Clio’s two jealous sisters, Melpomene and Calliope, constantly making trouble for the lovers. Their rendition of “Evil Woman” is a highlight, especially when the others — Aubrey Ireland, McKynleigh Abraham, as well as Blair Bowman and Brian Wylie in drag, enter in slinky black dresses and black wigs to back them up. Kira/Clio praises the six of them, “not only for your support but for singing backup.” They move well, too, to Missy Lay Zimmer’s choreography is a clever mash-up of “classic Greek” moves and disco posing.
McGee, a Cincinnati Shakespeare regular, and Earnest, who has entertained audiences at the Covedale in several recent productions, are wonderful physical comedians with great voices. They are up and down the Carnegie’s aisles, sneaking around the edges of the stage and more: At one point, Earnest landed in my lap (I was in an aisle seat) as she made her entrance. “Enjoy the show!” she whispered as she got up to dance down the aisle.
Rounding out the cast as the pompous business guy who owns the theater — as well as beleaguered Zeus, who must sort things out — is Rick Kramer, a community theater regular who brings an air of disdainful seniority that melts away when it’s not needed.
At one point a character describes the show as “children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people.” That gets a laugh, of course, and it certainly describes Xanadu’s guiding aesthetic. But by the finale, with everyone in the cast on roller skates, decked out in glittering sequins and silver lamé, with the disco ball’s glints of light spinning across the auditorium, everyone has been carried off to the silly, happy world of Xanadu.
XANADU, presented by the Carnegie Visual and Performing Arts Center, continues through Aug. 26.