“Art isn’t just for the intelligent and well educated, it’s also for people like you,” says Sonny Malone (Jordan Craig) to the audience at the beginning of the musical “Xanadu,” at Actor’s Express through June 16.
That statement, meant to describe Malone’s mural-in-process on Venice Beach, also acts as a sort of welcome to the show itself. Though “Xanadu” may not exactly fit into the category of art, “people like us” — and we know who we are — will feel right at home.
“Xanadu” is a jukebox musical that multiplies by a thousand everything corny, awful and preposterous about jukebox musicals. And impossibly, irresistibly, the formula works.
Imagine if Mel Brooks, John Travolta and ABBA had collaborated on a musical late one debauched night at Studio 54, and you’ll start to get the idea. The show — which recycles the crappy movie of the same name and all its crappy music — always has one eye winking at the audience, and it’s a giant, show-biz wink at that. It knows how silly it is and invites us to bathe in it and enjoy it too.
The plot — if that’s the right word — involves a Muse calling herself Kira (Lindsey Lamb Archer), who visits the artist Malone to inspire him to create a place where all the arts will converge. He decides to open — what else? — a roller disco. Hilarity ensues, and it brings along ribbon dancing, roller skates, leg warmers, silly accents, disco lights and early-1980s synth-pop in its wake.
The talented cast definitely has the energy, fleetness and humor to commit this act of desecration of the holy name of theater. Especially fun is the chorus of Kira’s sister Muses. Marcie Millard and Jill Hames connive and cackle as the antagonist Muses while the others mug, ham and hustle their way through the cheesy choreography, stale sight gags and catchy numbers. A scene in which the cast doubles up as the gods of Mount Olympus is hilarious: they become the A-list actors — Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress — who slummed it by taking on the roles of Zeus, Hera and Aphrodite in the B-movie “Clash of the Titans.”
This production brings to mind another show that was a Broadway hit around the same time as “Xanadu” a few years ago and that also had a recent successful Atlanta run: “The Drowsy Chaperone.” It’s good to know that self-consciously corny musicals play as well in Atlanta as they do in New York.
To truly hit a musical like “Xanadu” out of the park, however, every song has to sound amazing. Uptempo group numbers such as “All Over the World” were spot on, but the cast often stumbled in the slower solos and duets. Things were pitchy, as they say on “American Idol.” It may have been just opening-night jitters, but it became a stumbling block in an otherwise smoothly running show.
It’s surprising that set designer Phillip Male utilizes Actors’ Express’ most traditional auditorium arrangement. The black-box theater can transform into a number of different spaces, many of them far more spacious and unrestricted than this one, but this one seems to leave an area about the size of a 3-by-5 notecard for the actors to dance and roller-skate in.
But the show is all silly fun, and the actors effortlessly evoke the cheesy earnestness necessary to sell it in every scene. Any review of “Xanadu” must come with a caveat, however. Those who don’t like musicals should stay away. There’s even some (shudder) audience participation. Bring the wrong friend and they’ll be clawing their own face off.
Fortunately, all faces stayed intact on opening night, and everyone seemed pretty delighted. Obviously, the place was full of people like us.