"Where time stops — and the magic never ends!"
So went one of the promotional teasers for the 1980 film Xanadu, a weird amalgamation of oddball (if derivative) script, surprising casting (Oliva Newton-John and then-68-year-old Gene Kelly) and the music of Electric Light Orchestra founder Jeff Lynne and songwriter John Farrar, who wrote and produced many of Newton-John's pop hits.
Xanadu mostly sank amid negative reviews, though its roller-disco bizarreness and over-the-top cheesy fantasy eventually won the film a cult following.
As unlikely as it seems, the flick was revitalized as a stage musical, and enjoyed good notices and a healthy Broadway run in 2007-08, thanks in great part to book author Douglas Carter Beane, who managed to harvest something light and tongue-in-cheek from the Marc Reid Rubel screenplay.
Beane's handiwork refocused the story on its Greek mythology aspects and peppered the dialogue with self-conscious references to the original's corny plot points and characterizations. He also threw in one-liners about La La Land, Parker Stevenson (!) and Don McLean, plus other droll commentary about the '80s. The stage version included two additional Lynne classics, "Strange Magic" and "Evil Woman," plus Farrar's "Have You Never Been Mellow."
In mounting the Middle Tennessee premiere of Xanadu, Boiler Room Theatre faced some significant technical challenges. First, there isn't enough space on the BRT stage to fully exploit the roller skating theatrics (though congratulations are in order to those who skate and sing simultaneously). Second, a story about a beautiful muse inspiring a young artist to turn an aging roller-skating rink into an arts palace deserves some dreamy glitz — yet when the makeover of the roller-disco venue is completed, we're left wishing for more dazzling effects than BRT's resources allow.
But like the strange magic of Lynne's synth-driven compositions, the show's motley material and fairly raw stage talent coalesce into an enjoyable theatrical confection that should please anyone who likes playful stories that needn't be taken seriously — or who wants to revisit the '80s.
Director Corbin Green's cast stars two young players: Jillian Gottlieb, recently of Belmont University's voice program, and Stephen Michael Jones, an MTSU senior. Neither is exceptional, though both sing capably, and Jones' brief tap-dancing sequence proves fairly limited. Yet they successfully charm us as the well-fated lovers, both performers clearly running on moxie and youthful sincerity. (Think Glee.)
More experienced ensemble members Kay Ayers and Dan McGeachy — the latter in the Kelly role, minus the roller skates — do as well as anyone does in the mishmash of Green's direction and Billy Ditty's choreography, which includes a bizarre finale featuring the title tune. Of the five other supporting players, Cassidy Davis gives the strongest performance.
This production of Xanadu might be as improbable as the show's history, but it provides laughs, some '80s pop music nostalgia and an entertaining spirit that more than compensates for its shortcomings.
Last fall's experimental Sideshow Fringe Festival took over the Belmont-Hillsboro neighborhood for four days, as emerging artists at Actors Bridge Ensemble hosted a lineup of performers and groups working in alternative performance styles. The same ABE folks now announce Nashville's first "Sideshowcase" — a monthly live event presenting adventurous practitioners on the fringe.
The inaugural Sideshowcase takes place at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, at Belmont's Black Box Theatre, headlined by "The Swingin' Magic of Big Daddy Cool," which promises "a fusion of music, magic and larger-than-life theatrics." Also on the bill: belly dancing from Atlantis World Dance Company, the sketch comedy of Corporate Juggernaut, a "sound essay" by experimental composer Kyle Baker, and aerial hooping by Crystal Star. Reduced-rate tickets are available upon presentation of a program from the Actors Bridge production of The House of Bernarda Alba, which opens Feb. 17 and runs through Feb. 26. For more information, visit sites.google.com/site/sideshowcase, email Nashvillesideshow@gmail.com or call 719–0829.
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