We Are Magic

Surprisingly, ATC's stage take on a terrible film will skate its way into your heart

What do leg warmers, tube socks, a single sequined glove and mirror balls have in common?

They are all relics of a period in pop history, not so very long ago, that in retrospect gives us a lot to laugh about.  This is especially true if they are unapologetically celebrated in a wonderfully wrought exercise in silliness called Xanadu, now onstage at Arizona Theatre Company.

This is pure fun.  If you prefer your theater to be weighty, settling upon you like the protective X-ray cover at the dentist's, then you might want to skip this one.  But if you have a yen to forget that you haven't finished your Christmas shopping and your credit cards are already maxed out, you'd be wise to forget your troubles, come on, get happy, and snag what I'm sure will be a rare ticket to see this hoot-a-minute good time.

In a co-production with Village Theatre in Seattle and directed by ATC artistic director David Ira Goldstein,  Xanadu sings, dances, and roller skates directly on your funny bone.   Douglas Carter Beane wrote the script, imagining a marriage between denizens of Mount Olympus and Venice Beach, Calif.  That's right.  It sounds preposterous—and it is—but in the right hands, it works. 

Here, between Goldstein, Beane, a solid cast and skilled musicians, and a team of very creative designers, Xanadu works.

This is quite unlike the ridiculous mess of Xanadu, the movie, made in 1980, which is so bad it has developed a following who gather to make rapturous fun of it.  And that's how this Xanadu got its initial shove.  A producer was at a party where this sort of jesting was taking place and floated the idea to Beane.  He was skeptical, but what the heck?  And thus it began.

This Xanadu features the story of Sonny Malone (Dane Stokinger), a chalk artist in Venice Beach who feels that he is losing his creative fortitude.  He has drawn a mural featuring nine Greek muses who come alive, as these things are wont to do, and tall, blond roller-skating Kira/Clio (Jessica Skerritt) wants to help him fulfill his dream of creating what every neighborhood needs, a disco roller rink.  Oh, and maybe an art gallery, too. A couple of the muses aren't so sure Clio should be messing around in these sorts of affairs and lay a curse on her so she'll fall in love with this mortal and catch grief from Zeus.

Between Sonny and his dream is Danny Maguire, played by Jeff Steizer (seen often on the ATC stage and who also plays Zeus), a real estate developer who, it turns out, gave up his artistic inspirations to make moolah. Seems like, too, that Kira/Clio is awfully familiar to him, like someone he used to know.  Propelled by Kira/Clio's flirtatious encouragement, he gives in to Sonny and tells him he can have the dilapidated building if he can fix it up in one afternoon.  Hmmm.  Sounds like Sonny needs some divine intervention. 

OK.  That's all you really need to know about this silly storyline.  What you might need to know is that although the 1980 movie itself was crappola, the soundtrack was a hit.  And numbers from that movie and other dance-worthy tunes of the time are at the heart of what makes ATC's production work:  "I'm Alive," "Evil Woman," "Strange Magic," "Don't Walk Away" and, of course, "Xanadu." Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra and John Farrar, who helped create Olivia Newton-John's well-known repertoire, are responsible for these catchy pop tunes.  Music director Tim Symons has fashioned Xanadu's musical numbers with great pizzazz, and choreographer Kathryn Van Meter keeps the action energetic and athletic.

Stokinger has created a great Sonny, a combo beach dude/artist, very un-smart but determined to follow his art.  Skerritt's Kira/Clio, tall and graceful and a damn fine skater, adopts a peculiarly bad quasi-Australian/New Zealand accent (think Flight of the Conchords) with great comedic effect.  Lisa Estridge as Melpomene teams up with very tall and bespectacled Christine Riippi as Calliope, the two muses who conspire against their sister muse.  They are a force to be reckoned with, a dynamic duo of divas dangerous in a deliriously knock-out way.

In fact, the small mass of muses is so silly, but earnestly so, that the show would be thinner without them than it is anyway.  Dressed in tights and pastel chiffon, they assume a number of roles as the plot requires.  Watch out particularly for Richard Peacock and Michael Feldman, muse-dancers extraordinaire.

Sometimes the group's voices seem a bit shrill, and Stokinger tends toward flatness a couple of times, but not enough to alienate us.  In fact, without the skill and total, all-out commitment of the players, Xanadu would grow tiresome quickly.  But they make sure we stay engaged.  In fact, they inspire audience participation, a tricky sort of thing that often stumbles with adult audiences.  Not here, though.  We are definitely having fun and are not afraid to show it.

The 1980s may have been when inspiration left the arts, as a character states, and it has been long speculated what exactly Xanadu is (although Coleridge gives us a bit of direction). But Zeus, in this exuberant and gloriously goofy show, and in its hokey, absurdly self-referential way, gives us an answer:  "True love and the ability to create and share art."

And a stage where well-crafted intentional jest and spirited silliness can't help but make us laugh.

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