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Review: 'Xanadu' @ LaJolla Playhouse

November 26, 2008 | 12:54 pm

Clio (Elizabeth Stanley) and the 'Xanadu' muses

Men, break out the old cut-offs; ladies, fish out those leg warmers — we’re about to roller-skate back in time. Just keep moving to the heavily synthesized Electric Light Orchestra beat and don’t stop boogeying till you reach 1980, the year of Olivia Newton-John's unforgettable pop-disco extravaganza, “Xanadu.”

Now wait, where’s everybody going? Listen, I know the movie was one of the all-time stinkers, but the musical version is a loopy delight.

Well, at least it was on Broadway, where for longer than anyone would have imagined the show was the joker in the jukebox pack. The “Xanadu” that recently opened at the La Jolla Playhouse, staged by artistic director Christopher Ashley, who did such a bang-up job in New York, is an impostor — a friendly one that’s mildly diverting in patches, but a fake all the same.

Sonny (Max von Essen) in 'Xanadu' The voices in the cast are willing, but the lampooning spirit is weak. If you treat the musical as an iPod retro shuffle with a few daft chuckles thrown in, you won’t be disappointed. Nostalgia freaks will surely dig how well the old groove is sung. (Warning: the show may have strange effects on your lingo.) But the lukewarm lunacy had me imagining a karaoke for cut-ups — you know a place for ordinary Joes and Josephines to reveal the theatrical crackpots they’ve always longed to be.

Douglas Carter Beane’s self-mocking adaptation of the screenplay still has plenty of fizzy laughs, though a good proportion of them fall flat. The most memorable punch lines (“This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people”) are of the insider variety, and the audience has to be partly implicated for them to properly detonate. (The actors also need to deliver the material with less strenuous comic conviction.)

The gags that work best poke fun at that peculiar moment of cultural history when the polyester ’70s were just starting to give way to the spandex ’80s. Note the torrent of laughter that rolls out after Sonny (Max von Essen), the Venice Beach mural artist down on his luck, confesses his dream about opening up a roller disco, and Clio (Elizabeth Stanley), the bombshell leader of the Muses who has come to his aid, replies in all sincerity, “How timeless!”

The two are falling in love despite Zeus’ decree, which forbids mortals and demi-goddesses from hooking up. You see, Clio has assumed the name Kira and an Australian accent as a disguise after she and her “sisters” have sprung to life from one of Sonny’s chalk drawings. She wants to rescue him from his suicidal despair, but her jealous cohorts, Melpomene (Sharon Wilkins) and Calliope (Joanna Glushak), who do a swinging rendition of “Evil Woman,” cast a spell so that she’ll find this Parker Stevenson airhead totally irresistible and get into hot water with Mt. Olympus’ head honcho.

Too bad I can’t liven up this plot synopsis with a few excerpts from “I’m Alive,” “Suddenly” and “All Over the World,” three hits from the original soundtrack by John Farrar, the song-writing powerhouse behind Newton-John, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne, which will have you bopping and lip-syncing with embarrassing abandon. (Dan Knechtges’ frolicsome choreography models some of the moves you’ve no doubt already tried at home, maybe even half-dressed in front of your mirror.)

For anyone who had a radio when the album (remember those!) first came out, these tunes have become embedded in the unconscious mind and there’s little point in putting up resistance to a force that strong.

The problem is that the campiness of the material isn’t matched by the campiness of the ensemble. Stanley, who starred in the musical adaptation of John Waters’ “Cry-Baby,” does better covers of Newton-John singles than Newton-John herself — amazingly, even as she’s getting an intensive aerobic workout on roller skates — but she’s not a particularly bold comedian. Neither, for that matter, is Von Essen, who’s likable though indistinct, even in those Band-Aid-size dungaree shorts. And the supporting actors too often have to sweat for their guffaws.

The enchantment of “Xanadu” on Broadway stemmed from an attitude that threatened to blow up not just the harebrained movie but also the more self-knowingly harebrained musical version. The scenery chewing was cannibalistic. And the hilariously shameless mugging of Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa, who must have herniated facial muscles as the mischievous Muses, could have set a new Guinness World Record.

Lacking the same boundary-busting spark of irreverence, the La Jolla Playhouse production is like a magic show in which all the tricks are performed with visible cue-cards.

-- Charles McNulty

"Xanadu," Mandell Weiss Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions). Ends Dec. 31. $25-$100. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Top photo: Clio (Elizabeth Stanley) and the "Xanadu" muses.

Bottom photo: Sonny (Max von Essen) in "Xanadu."

Photos by Carol Rosegg