Strange magic: Xanadu at Toby’s Theatre

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Dan Collins

At first glance, the idea of basing a Broadway musical on a film that inspired the creation of the Razzies — the anti-Oscars given each year to the year’s worst movies — might not seem too bright.

Xanadu, Olivia Newton-John’s follow-up to her star turn in Grease, was vilified by the critics, and if you’ve ever seen it, you likely understand why. A Greek goddess helps an out-of-work actor open a roller disco? A movie where Michael Beck (veteran of such…um, “films,” as Warlords of the 21st Century) headlines with Gene “Singing in the Rain” Kelly?

Ouch.

No one could debate, however, that the Xanadu soundtrack was a winner, featuring five top 20 singles: “Magic,” “Xanadu,” “All Over the World,” “I’m Alive” and “Suddenly.”

Xanadu’s premise, played straight, made for a horrible movie. But played for satire, it was a hit on Broadway, where it opened in 2007 with more than 500 performances and a Tony Awards nomination for Best Musical.

Audience participation

The ever-boisterous, givin’-it-their-all ensemble at Toby’s Dinner Theatre does Xanadu more than justice, not waiting around to encourage audience participation, as theater patrons are literally brought on to the stage to wave colored light sticks and provide foils for the actors, adding to the hilarity.

Xanadu is a comedic send-up of the 1980s — can someone explain the fixation with leg-warmers? — as well as the 1980 film, as Heather Marie Beck adopts “an Australian accent” (Ms. Newton-John being Australian) and wears roller skates to “conceal her true identity” as the Greek muse, Clio.

Greg Twomey’s Sonny Malone is the would-be artist whose chalk drawing of Greek muses comes alive, bringing Clio to Venice, California, and the opening number, “I’m Alive” to the stage.

He performs in denim short-shorts and tight T-shirts for the entire show. Wikipedia notes that Xanadu the film amassed a strong gay following. There’s a nod to this as well when one of Clio’s sister muses exclaims, “It’s like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people.”

And Xanadu is definitely geared toward an older audience as younger folks might miss some of the ’70s and ’80s references. At one point, Sonny notes that Clio’s sister, Melpomene (Maria Egler) bears a striking resemblance “to Witchiepoo.”

I’m 48 and it took a moment, but I did recall “Witchiepoo,” the evil witch from the ’70s Sid and Marty Krofft children’s TV series, “H.R. Pufnstuf.”

Particularly amusing are jabs at the somewhat dismal landscape that was the popular art scene of the 1980s. When Sonny imagines “a place where all the arts come together, song, dance, concerts, even athletics” not as a cultural center (like an amalgam of the Guggenheim and Carnegie Hall) but as a roller disco, one can’t help but laugh. 

Hamming it up

As usual for a Toby’s production, don’t expect multi-million dollar-Broadway production values, and in fact, you wouldn’t want them here. Part of what made Xanadu the movie so wonderfully terrible was how cheesy it all seemed.

So, yes, give me cardboard and plywood sets, give me glitter balls, fog and strobe effects, and soap-bubble makers, give me a man dressed as a centaur and a Medusa with a head of glitter-covered snakes. The cheaper looking, the better — it’s comedy, after all.

Toby’s strength lies in the enthusiasm and unflagging energy of the cast members, who were clearly enjoying the opportunity to ham it up and embrace the absurdity. When Sonny, who manages to ascend Mount Olympus with a $12.98 aluminum ladder, accuses Zeus and his fellow gods of being the actors from the 1981 bomb, Clash of the Titans, you can see the cast is enjoying the joke as much as the audience.

David Bosley-Reynolds does a nice turn in the Gene Kelly role of Danny McGuire, the one-time wide-eyed artist who blew his chance at love with Clio in the 1940s and opted instead for riches as a construction mogul. Still, if you’re going to “fake-play” a clarinet as Danny does, it’s probably not a bad idea to have someone in the orchestra pit actually tooting that licorice stick to back you up.

Kudos to choreographer Laurie Newton, who somehow manages to keep her charges in sync despite the fact that only some are on roller skates. (Kudos must also go to “Specialty Skating Instructor” Lawrence B. Munsey.)

Even if you don’t know Olivia Newton-John from Trapper John, it’s hard not to be caught up in the energy of Xanadu where actors are tap-dancing and scat-singing in one scene and roller skating and waving red feather fans in another.

Toby’s Xanadu is definitely a colorful production, and the songs are a delight, particularly for us who can recall when songs like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” were all over the radio.

Xanadu continues its run at Toby’s Baltimore, 5625 O’Donnell St., now through Aug. 28. Tickets range from $49.50 for Sunday matinee brunch performances to $55 for Saturday dinner. For more information and for tickets, call 1-866-99-TOBYS or visit www.tobysdinnertheatre.com.

Dan Collins is a Baltimore freelance writer.