The 1980 romantic-fantasy film Xanadu was a box-office disaster that went on to garner a cult following (perhaps due to the soundtrack, featuring songs by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar). Xanadu the Musical, with songs by Lynne and Farrar and book by Douglas Carter Beane (Sister Act the Musical), trades on that cinematic disaster past: on stage it’s so self-aware that it’s a spoof, switching substance for superfluous cheese and exaggeration. It’s a send-up.
We open on Venice Beach in the 1980s, as Sonny Malone (Ainsley Melham) is growing frustrated at his artistic failings. In response, the Greek muse Clio (Jaime Hadwen) comes to life and takes on the persona of Kira, an Australian mortal, who inspires Sonny to follow his dreams and open a roller disco: Xanadu.
In between moments of Sonny and Kira’s unfolding love story, we get glimpses into the world of the Muses. Melpomeme (a brooding Jayde Westaby) and Calliope (an energetic and comical Francine Cain) are plotting to curse Clio so she falls in love with Sonny and is banished by Zeus – so Melpomeme can take over as head of the Muses.
These storylines are held together with cheesy choreography (by Nathan M Wright, who also directs, and Leah Howard), flamboyant costumes (by James Browne), bright lights (by Simon Johnson), corny humour and of course, roller-skating.
The problem is that Wright’s direction is heavy-handed. Every joke is played so deliberately as to not miss it, and although there are moments of self-parody in the show, it comes at the expense of any genuine character growth or intimacy, leaving everything feeling superficial and exaggerated. Despite being only ninety minutes, the show feels drawn out and there’s no real investment made inside the characters’ feelings or the A-and-B plots to keep an audience engaged.
The cast exude enthusiasm, playing energetically to the campy tone of the show. Together, they create a great blend of sound, backed by a four-piece band under direction of Andrew Bevis. The 80s score is the real heart of this show, and at times it feels authentic and exciting (like in the leading duo’s love song ‘Suddenly’), but the direction often draws focus away from the songs towards the exaggerated action, and thus does a disservice to what could be a great element of the show. The sound design (by Neil McLean) is unbalanced but those mic issues might be sorted into the run.
Jaime Hadwen’s Kira/Clio radiates positivity; she does an admirable job of carrying the show. Melham’s Sonny balances her vibrancy and together they make a pleasant leading duo.
All the cheese works for the show and not against it, finally, in the last number: Xanadu is real and a triumphant roller disco erupts onstage, pink sequined jackets and all. It’s the only real moment of excitement of the show and it comes too late, but at least it comes at all.
Xanadu the Musical doesn’t take itself seriously. As long as you don’t either, you’re in for a treat. But don’t go along hoping for anything more.