ASGT takes film flop to stage success with 'Xanadu'

Unlike 1980 movie starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly, there's a lot to like here

  • From left, Jeffrey Walter (as Sonny) and Carol Anne Drescher (as Kira), with Pegasus, perform during a scene of Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre's production of "Xanadu."
From left, Jeffrey Walter (as Sonny) and Carol Anne Drescher… (Photo for The Baltimore…)
August 16, 2012|By Mary Johnson, Special to The Baltimore Sun

After starting with Cole Porter's classic "Anything Goes," then moving to the hilariously horny puppets of "Avenue Q," Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre closes its diverse 2012 season with "Xanadu," the 1980 film disaster converted into a 2007 Broadway roller disco hit.

This summer's productions offered something for every taste, from classic Broadway to weird coming-of-age to the absurdity of a Greek muse turned Australian roller girl banished from Olympus after falling for a California mortal.

Despite a cast featuring Olivia Newton-Johnand Gene Kelly, "Xanadu" was among the worst movies of 1980. The film, however, inspired a musical that won the Outer Critics Circle Award for best musical, a Drama Desk Award for best book and a Tony nomination for best musical.

Using the original hit tunes from the movie in his theatrical adaptation, Douglas Carter Beane spoofs the story of Greek muse Clio descending from Mount Olympus to Venice Beach, Calif., to inspire struggling muralist Sonny Malone to create an artistic wonder — the first roller disco. When Clio, disguised as a roller girl named Kira, falls into forbidden love with the mortal Sonny, her jealous sister muses seize on her situation to create chaos.

The show ran on Broadway for 16 months, burnishing the movie's music while spoofing the film and the 1980s Venice Beach roller-skating scene with layered references to '80s pop culture and the improbabilities of the inane story.

An admitted fan of the movie that is "bad in all the right ways" and "utterly delicious with its mismatched absurdity," ASGT director Melissa Huston takes this absurdity to new heights while pacing it briskly enough to prevent the audience from having time to question the strange plot.

Music director and pianist/conductor Ken Kimble leads his talented trio of Zach Konick on drums, Emily Sergo on keyboard and Rob Weaver on guitar through a score consisting of Jeff Lynne rock tunes like "I'm Alive" and "Evil Woman," Newton-John collaborator John Farrar's "Magic" and "Suddenly," and numbers straddling two eras, such as "Dancin'," which blends 1940s swing with 1980s rock.

As co-directors in set design, Huston and Matt Mitchell bring a springlike palette to imaginative sets that are complemented by costume designer Sarah Kendrick's pastel gowns for the Olympus goddesses. The peachy tones are carried over in Kira's costume with matching leg-warmers. Also outstanding are the flashy, metallic costumes for Olympus gods and disco skaters.

Professional dancer Felicity Stiverson, who grew up in Annapolis, returns to choreograph intensely athletic dance and skating numbers that are often accented with a funky touch to redefine tunes and add excitement.

The fine cast is headed by a talented young pair making their ASGT debuts. Jeffrey Walter, 20, plays Sonny Malone, and Carol Ann Drescher, 19, plays the dual roles of Kira and Clio.

Walter is convincing as Sonny, projecting his intense ambition to realize his dream of transforming a building destined for the wrecking ball into a glamorous roller disco in only half a day. He makes credible Sonny's instant attraction and devotion to Kira, creating notable chemistry with Drescher.

Dancing and skating, Walter moves with athletic grace, and his superb singing reflects his experience in several opera productions. His powerful voice is also capable of expressing heartfelt emotion in ballads and stirring gospel.

Drescher's Kira and Clio are equally engaging, with muse Clio a bit loftier and unapproachable as she indulges in a 1940s wartime romance with Danny Maguire. As Kira, Drescher adapts a credibleOlivia Newton-JohnAussie accent, and her resemblance to the singing star extends to her spot-on renditions of Newton-John's signature songs "Magic" and "Suddenly." Drescher dances and glides gracefully, even backward, on skates.

The young leads are backed by a talented cast that includes comic standout sister muses Melpomene, played by Jenifer Grundy Hollett in a spectacular ASGT debut, and Calliope, played by Lauren Wither-Hansen, who returns to the stage after a nine-year hiatus. This scene-stealing pair commands attention as they plot their evil deeds, fly about the stage and join in song. A show-stopping moment arrives when Hollett belts out "Evil Woman" with Wither-Hansen providing comic rhythmic backup.

Another strong supporting player is veteran Bob Brewer, who plays McGuire as a middle-age real estate developer who remains devoted to his lost love, Clio.

Unfortunately, on opening night, microphone malfunctions rendered most of his lines and first-act song almost inaudible. Having enjoyed Brewer's warm baritone in past performances, I was disappointed at the audience's being denied the pleasure, and I hope it was corrected subsequently.

Performances continue Thursdays through Sundays at 8:30 p.m. through Sept. 2. Tickets are $20 and can be ordered by calling the box office at 410-268-9212 or online at Reservations are also being taken for ASGT Stage/2 renovation fundraiser performances Sept. 15 and 16 of "Jerry's Girls," starring five local leading ladies.

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