Review: Xanadu Rolls Out True Escapist Entertainment

Marco Robinson and Lauren Shealy in Xanadu.
Marco Robinson and Lauren Shealy in Xanadu. Emily Lozow
I didn’t know this as I watched Xanadu in the intimate Garner Galleria at the Denver Performing Arts Complex, but a very bad movie of that title was released in 1980, starring Olivia Newton-John; I learned of it in the ladies’ room line after the performance. The musical follows that movie’s plot to an extent: It’s the story of Sonny, an idealistic young artist who hates his own work, suffers severe doubts about his talent, and is suicidal until he’s visited by the muse Clio, here called Kira and sometimes Kitty. She appears to be Australian (Olivia Newton-John is English Australian), wears leg warmers (to protect an Achilles heel) and glides around on roller skates.
Together they decide to create a place where all the arts can meet, a roller disco featuring music, dance, painting, movies and poetry. But there’s a glitch. Clio-Kira has two jealous sisters, fellow muses Calliope and Melpomene, and they’re determined to bring about her downfall. Which shouldn’t be too hard: Muses are forbidden to dabble in the arts themselves and also prohibited from falling in love with human beings, and it’s clear from Sonny and Clio’s first meeting that she’ll rapidly violate both these rules, as well as piss off her father, Zeus, and end up banished to the underworld.

Put a bad movie in the hands of writer Douglas Carter Beane and songwriters Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, though, and you have a stylish, humorous musical. Add the talents on display in this Denver Center production and the result is one of the most amusing evenings you can ever hope to enjoy: satirical, clever-stupid, light as air, pointless and at the same time pure comic gold.

Lauren Shealy, who plays Clio, is a local treasure with a rich Denver résumé. She has a fine, supple singing voice, is funny as hell, and turns out to be graceful even on roller skates. In short shorts and a tank top, Marco Robinson shows off Sonny’s biceps, triceps and lats, as well as leg muscles I hadn’t before known existed. He has a good voice, too, though it’s miked quite a bit softer than the voices of his fellow performers, who are so loud and exuberant that it must take everything he has to play a semi-serious leading man around them — but he does so successfully. As the nasty sisters, Sarah Rex (Calliope) and Sheryl McCallum (Melpomene) are fantastic. Rex gets to exercise all of her comic chops, and they’re impressive. I last saw McCallum as a dignified Aunt Eller in the Denver Center’s radiantly successful Oklahoma!; she’s not the least bit dignified here as she identifies herself with full-throated malice as an “Evil Woman.” Aaron Vega, who plays — among other roles — Danny, owner of the run-down Los Angeles building that Sonny and Clio want to convert into their roller disco, Xanadu, is a seriously talented comic with a seriously impressive baritone. Not only do these performers shine individually, but their ensemble work is wonderfully energetic and synergistic. When the three muses come together on “Dancin’,” a parody of the Andrews Sisters, their performance is so sweet and slick that it could almost be homage rather than satire. Credit for this has to go to director Joel Ferrell, choreographer Piper Lindsay Arpan and music director David Nehls.

The week before I attended Xanadu had been rough for reasons I won't go into here, and I wasn't looking for depth, high intellect or profound emotion. What I needed was escape and entertainment, and I got these things in spades: I really can’t remember when I’ve laughed so much in the theater. In the midst of the untethered silliness, though, I noticed oddly uplifting themes, including the implication that art is essential to human existence and that every kind of art qualifies — whether it’s roller skating, creating chalk drawings on sidewalks, or inspiring the chorus of chortles, chuckles and giggles I heard in that ladies’ room line.

Xanadu, presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Cabaret through April 28, Garner Galleria Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100,
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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman