Arlington’s Signature Theatre is perhaps best known for its productions of Stephen Sondheim-penned musicals and, more recently, world premiere musicals by emerging composers. As the final production of its 22nd season, it departs slightly from that agenda and stages a recent Broadway hit musical comedy. Tony-nominated Xanadu, which features a book by Douglas Carter Beane and music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, is a far cry from Sweeney Todd to be sure, but it’s likely to be an audience pleaser.
Based on the 1980s cult film of the same name, Xanadu focuses on the plight of Sonny Malone (Charlie Brady), a struggling young artist in Venice, California. As he searches for artistic inspiration, he is visited by a beautiful Greek muse, Clio (the exquisitely talented Erin Weaver). Backed by her six sisters, Clio transforms herself into Kira, a young girl with an Australian accent and a love for roller skates and legwarmers, to give Sonny some inspiration as he pursues his artistic journey and opens up a roller disco/arts venue. Kira unexpectedly falls in love with Sonny (or does she?) and must deal with the consequences as it is strictly forbidden for Greek goddesses to fall in love with the mortals they help.
It’s harmless summer fun and features some exhilarating musical comedy talent and solid direction by Gardiner.
Implausible and wacky story? Sure. Those that are looking for a deep intellectual experience or exploration of the human condition won’t find it in this show. Luckily for the audience, however, Director/Choreographer Matthew Gardiner doesn’t work too hard to make the show any more than what it is- silly and often ridiculous. Young phenom Gardiner and his tremendously talented cast of nine never take the material too seriously and play up the camp value to the hilt. This tongue-in-cheek approach allows for the end result to be a good one.
Though there are cringe-worthy jokes aplenty, including several of those that poke fun at the Broadway musical, the exceptionally talented cast transcends the material with relative ease. Most successful is Erin Weaver. Mostly known as a dramatic actress in the DC area, Weaver is provided with an opportunity to show off her high-caliber musical theatre talent, her strong belt, and her comedic timing. Her ability and commitment to maintain great vocals and acting as she navigates the stage in roller skates (or one roller skate in the case of the latter part of the show) is commendable. She exudes charisma as she engages with her male love interest.
Weaver is equally at ease with singing 80s pop-rock ballads with Brady as she is with singing 1940s-inspired ditties with the always-strong Harry A Winter (as Danny Maguire, a real estate mogul who was also inspired by Clio in his youth). Winter and Weaver share one of the most effective songs in the show as the audience journeys back to Maguire’s youth. “Whenever You’re Away From Me” provides a nice break from the 80s pop music, which begins to all sound the same after a while. Weaver and Winter do the song considerable justice.
The production also features another strong vocalist-actress in the form of Nova Y. Paton. As one of the standouts in the recent Signature presentation of Hairspray (for which she won a Helen Hayes for her role as Motormouth Maybelle), Payton proves here that she is consistently able to bring strong and commanding vocals to the table no matter the material she is given. Her feature in “Strange Magic” is one of the vocal highlights of the show.
Sherri L. Edelen, Mark Chandler, Jamie Eacker, Kellee Knighten Hough, and Nickolas Vaughan are featured in multiple ensemble roles and round out the cast nicely. Their tight choral work and high levels of enthusiasm and energy make the show enjoyable to watch and forget about the ridiculousness of it all. A four-piece band, led by Gabriel Mangiante and featuring Jenny Cartney, Steven Walker, and Paul Keesling, is also integral to the success of this production. Though the musical material is less than stellar at times, they play it with a consistent level of energy and commitment.
Rounding out this strong production are Gardiner’s detailed choreography, Chris Lee’s intricate and disco-flavored lighting design, and Misha Kachman’s beach-inspired scenic design. In particular, Kachman’s scenic design, which features a boardwalk and palm trees with glowsticks as trunks, is one of the most eye-catching I’ve seen at Signature. It does not overshadow the acting, but sets the mood for this fluffy, bubblegum production.
Xanadu is certainly not the most awe-inspiring musical Signature has brought to the stage, although it is definitely being staged at the right time as we move into the summer season. It’s harmless summer fun and features some exhilarating musical comedy talent and solid direction by Gardiner.
Running Time: 90 minutes
Xanadu plays at the Signature Theatre- 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA- through July 1, 2012. For tickets, call the box office at 703-820-9771 or purchase them online.