Xanadu Works Its Magic In San Diego

Last night I took the opportunity to check out the new stage version of Xanadu that is currently playing at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. Technically I have a ticket for the show next week, but I got an offer in my e-mail to see the show earlier through Goldstar and at bargain price, so why not take a chance and go.

The seat I ended up with was an on-stage seat. Basically how the set is structured is that it looks a little like a Ancient Greek amphitheatre with a main performance area at the front of the stage and some tiered seating towards the back of the stage where additional audience members get seated and fill out the presence on stage. Sections of the on stage seating are left empty so that the cast members can sit and be part of the background and jump back into the show when appropriately timed. Additionally some props for them are stashed in the seating for use during the show as well.

Unlike regular seats, we had to be given a briefing on what we were expected to do which is basically have fun and stay seated until the orchestra plays its final note. There would be no chances for a bathroom break and if we had to leave, we could but would not be able to return to the stage seats. And we would not be issued our copies of the playbill until after the show. The show runs about ninety minutes so no problem there. We were also issued a glow stick and instructed that we would be told by the cast when it is time to break the glow stick to activate it and wave it around.

While waiting for the show to start, I was seated between a group of two college aged girls and an older couple and I took the opportunity to each pair. The college girls were very excited about the show as one of them had seen it the week before and had on stage seats, she wanted to do it again and have a friend with her, so she brought her friend from UC Irvine to the show. The other couple were also excited to see the show and thought it was a real treat to be enjoying the on stage seating. This couple had been subscribers to the La Jolla Playhouse in previous years and I had been at one time as well so we chatted about the various shows we’d seen there over the years. We also chatted about the props and backstage elements that we could see but were not visible to the audience.

In a fashion similar to how Mamma Mia! announces it’s a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously by announcing a warning that Mamma Mia! contains spandex and platform boots, Xanadu also starts the fun in the introductory announcements. The announcement conveys that because the show is set in 1980, men wear very short shorts and within a moment Max von Essen as Sunny Malone appears on stage in very short shorts and a tank top carrying a case of chalk and then runs to the back of the stage to work on the “chalk” mural of the muses that is projected onto the back wall. As he gets frustrated with the drawing he runs off stage and the show starts with “I’m Alive” as the chalk drawing start to animate and come to life with the various muses coming to life until finally the wall comes apart to reveal Elizabeth Stanley as Clio who decides she needs to inspire Sonny and go in disguise as Kira who will sport roller skates and legwarmers and an Australian accent.

The show playfully employs a lot of Olivia Newton-John-isms that are exaggerated for comedic effect. Obviously, the overplayed Australian accent, the movements Elizabeth Stanley employs are right out of the movie, and even using an over exaggerated version of Olivia’s trademark “breathy” vocals. All of which add to the fun of the show. The show is very playful with its pop culture references such as the scene on Mt. Olympus where Sonny feels the Greek gods look like the actors in “Clash Of The Titans” which makes for a funny comment about how the similarities to a film is a testament to the quality of the filmmakers, which is a fun nod at how the movie Xanadu is regarded as bad.

Many of the cast members play more than one role. Larry Marshall plays Danny Maguire as well as Zeus. Joanna Glushak plays Calliope and Aphrodite, and Sharon Wilkins plays Melpomene and Medusa, and the other muses fulfill many roles to accent the show. Sharon Wilkins and Joanna Glushak especially seem to have a blast playing their muse roles of Melpomene and Calliope respectively as they get to ham it up as the villains of the show, where they plot to undermine Clio by making her fall in love, reveal she is a muse to a mortal, and create art all of which are forbidden by Zeus.

All the great songs from the Xanadu movie make their way into the stage show and they are also complimented with the additions of other Electric Light Orchestra classics like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic”. In addition to the added ELO hits, “Have You Never Been Mellow?” from the Olivia Newton-John songbook also gets added to compliment the songs from the Xanadu soundtrack. I especially enjoyed the performance of “Dancin'” which was always one of my favorite songs from the original movie as the contrast of 1940’s big band mixes with 1980’s rock and roll. Where there wasn’t nearly enough cast members to replicate the movie version’s elaborate number of dancers, the stage show cast effectively uses two of the muses and Kira dressed as the 40’s singers, and Danny with a clarinet and the 80’s rock was represented as the two male muses and Sonny. And even with the fewer number of cast members they still made it effective to highlight the contrast in musical styles and then when they styles blend together.

Some of my highlights for me was how uncannily similar JB Wing as one of the muses and 40’s singers looked to one of the actresses who played one of the 40’s singers in the original Xanadu movie. The playful way Kira suggests to Sonny how it would be amazing if there was a magic book that would list all the businesses in Los Angeles and have their phone numbers next to the listings and how this magic book would have pages the color of amber. In the song “Xanadu” when cast member Vincent Rodriguez III brought out a fan to blow Kira’s hair while she sang a part of the song. Vincent later zipped around on his roller skates and tossed me an extra glow stick to wave around when it was time for us on stage audience members to become participants in the show.

I had an absolute blast at the show, I feel that the book writer Douglas Carter Beane, and Director Christopher Ashley have done a wonderful job reinvisioning Xanadu for the stage. They fixed the film’s flawed plot and found a brilliant way to give new life to wonderful songs. The stage show even inspired Universal to remaster the movie and reissue it on DVD. The show truly feels like they took the DVD of Xanadu and the DVD of “The Secret” and threw them in a blender and poured out a brilliant stage show. You leave the show seeing Sonny’s dream of a roller disco as a metaphor that if you stick to your dreams and not let anyone steal them away from you, you can find your Xanadu of happiness in life.

If you get a chance to see Xanadu here in San Diego or later on when the show tours, all I can say is go and have a great time. It’s a fun show. To see if discounted tickets are available through Goldstar, click here to join Goldstar (membership is free) or click here to buy them directly from the La Jolla Playhouse.



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