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Theater Review: Xanadu

Kalani Whitford and Camille Romero’s production of “Xanadu” is a blast, both a robust, candy-colored jukebox musical/comedy and an irreverent parody of one. Opening tonight at The Historic Iao Theater, “Xanadu” is a stage adaptation of the 1980 Olivia Newton-John/ Gene Kelly movie musical, a notorious disaster in its day, now sent up and elevated by a wonderful cast and a full-throttle presentation.

Lia De Souza stars as Kira, a Greek muse who journeys down to Earth in 1980- specifically, Venice Beach, California. Donning a vegemite-thick Aussie accent (a nice nod to Newton-John) as a pseudo-disguise, Kira meets Sonny Malone (played by Brock Ambrose), an artist with big dreams and very tiny red shorts (remember, its 1980). Meanwhile, Kira’s jealous and vindictive sisters, Melpomene (played by Kristi Scott) and Calliope (played by Rebecca Rhapsody Narrowe), aim to sabotage Kira’s journey by plaguing her with love. Then there’s Sonny’s encounters with a real estate big shot Danny Maguire (played by Frances Taua); Danny gives Sonny his financial support and is struck by how Kira reminds him someone he once knew long ago.

“Xanadu” The Musical takes itself far less seriously than “Xanadu” The Movie ever did, which is one of the best things about it. As colorful and comforting as a leg warmer and smarter than you’d expect, it finds a steady stream of laughs for embracing the cheese of its era but also sending up the source material, musicals based on movies, the instantly dated tackiness of the 1980 and theater tropes in general. 

De Souza gives a vigorous, comically astute performance. She’s playing a character who is whimsical and naïve but also cleverly sending up this kind of role. If it looks like she’s just goofing around up there, just contemplate for a moment how hard it is to sustain that character and accent as she sings the iconic “Magic” (beautifully, by the way) while roller-skating.

Ambrose is great, finding the right tone for his character but, like De Souza, visibly relishing the moments where he sends up his role. Scott tears into her scenes- she and Narrowe are fun as a villainous duo, though I have to mention the throwaway bit where Narrowe takes a moment to literally chew the scenery. Yes, it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke but I’ve never seen an actor actually do it and appreciate the demonstration. Taua utilizes a voice that could be described as bottomless bravado- I loved watching his performance, full of sharp comic timing, but I especially enjoyed listening to it. 

Playing the other members of Kira’s family are Dejah Padon, Barry Kawakami, Stefani Petterson and John Galvan- keep an eye on their work, as their sly comic touches (both broad and subtle) add greatly to the cheeky tone established.

Of the fifteen musical numbers, I especially loved “Suddenly” (with its amazing gliding phone booth), “Whenever You’re Away from Me,” “All Over the World,” “Don’t Walk Away” and the title number. The musical sequences are well staged and come at a clip. Caro Walker’s jaw-dropping sets incorporate a workable skating route and an awesome 80’s roller disco façade. 

Here’s a compliment I’ve never given before (and, unless someone brave brings back “Starlight express” or “The Rink,” I never will again)- the cast impressed me greatly by their ability to hit their marks while on skates. Acting in a musical comedy is challenging enough without having to worry about the little wheels beneath your shoes that could cause you to eat it on stage or (arguably worse) fly into the audience. The choreography is fun without the skates but is especially noticeable when the cast is zipping around stage, singing and acting whole heartedly and maintaining their balance. Special mention goes to Stephie Garrett, credited in the program as the Skating Coach, a valuable contributor for a show like this.

A supernatural occurrence even more miraculous than being revisited by a Greek muse: the whole thing is 90 minutes! Its brisk, never overstays its welcome and builds nicely. There’s no intermission, just a steady hour and a half of big laughs and great tunes you’ll likely remember the moment you hear them.

So, is there a point, a deeper meaning or a message of some kind it wishes to convey? If anything, it’s this: in this age of rampant 80’s revisionism, lets embrace our nostalgia, hold onto what we know to be true and pursue our dreams with the passion that once ignited our youthful days. If “Xanadu” itself is dated, then allow me to date this review- we’re living in a time of global fears and political quicksand. Timing couldn’t be better for this show.

On preview night, I saw this sitting next to the prolific Maui DJ Michael McCartney, who confessed that he saw the “Xanadu” movie as a double feature with “The Empire Strikes Back” and actually preferred “Xanadu” (which might be more insane than the plot of “Xanadu”). On the other hand, I grew up listening to the LP on my Mother’s record player, only to be crushed with disappointment when I finally got around to watching the movie itself. Nevertheless, once the lights went down at The Historic Iao Theater and the show fires up with ELO’s “I’m Alive,” McCartney and I bobbed our heads and struggled for 90 minutes not to sing along with the cast.  It won us over completely and I suspect it will have the same effect on everyone else who sees it.

Xanadu is playing at The Historic Iao Theater until March 15. Tickets are available by calling 808-242-6969 or at mauionstage.com.

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About Barry Wurst II

Barry Wurst II
Barry Wurst II is a senior editor & film critic at MAUIWatch. He wrote film reviews for a local Maui publication and taught film classes at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs (UCCS). Wurst also co-hosted podcasts for Screengeeks.com and has been published in Bright Lights Film Journal and in other film-related websites. He is currently featured in the new MAUIWatch Podcast- The NERDWatch.

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