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Event Review

Xanadu at the Civic Theatre


Rolling fun at Civic’s Xanadu

In his notes for the Kalamazoo Civic’s “Xanadu,” the closing production for its 93rd season, director Tony Humrichouser talks about the music in the show being a crossroads of 1980s genres: disco, new wave and rock.

If that is not enough genre blending, then consider that the fevered, free-wheeling, jukebox celebration of roller disco is also a fusion of everything from “D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths” to “Roller Boogie” to “Clash of the Titans” — with a splash of “Babes in Arms” gee-whiz fun.

Which is all to say, “Xanadu,” which runs through May 22, is a harmless narrative mishmash presented with great enthusiasm. The production was a little rough around some of the musical edges, but those edges were smoothed over with hummable 80s hits (well, hummable to a certain demographic), sly one-liners and  eye-popping bursts of color and jolting bolts of lightning.

The stage production, with book by Douglas Carter Beane, is based on the 1980 movie which starred Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. It has music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, 80s classics, such as “All Over the World, “ “Strange Magic,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” and, of course, the eponymous “Xanadu.”

The movie is a flop turned cult favorite; the stage musical is more than respectable (having won a Drama Desk Award for best book and Tony nominations for best musical and book).

The story is ridiculous: Sonny (August Gallagher), a struggling Venice beach artist, is ready to pack it in, but the Greek muse Clio (Amanda Lapekas) is compelled to help him, so she changes her name to Kira, dons leg warmers and roller skates and switches to an Australian accent to disguise her true identity — although as we later find, Sonny would never believe she is a Greek demigod anyway.

Unbeknownst to Kira, her jealous sister muses Calliope and Melpomene (Kate Mikhailova and Sydney Lewis) cast a love spell on Kira and Sonny, hoping their affair will incur Zeus’ (R.J. Soule) wrath for being a bit of forbidden demigod-human passion.

As Clio/Kira descends into Sonny’s life, she inspires him to pursue his vision: a place that unites the arts and “a little athletics:” a roller disco. He approaches the wealthy landlord Danny Maguire (Norman Frazier) with a proposal to turn his old club, The Xanadu, into the roller disco, only to find that Danny has his own history with Kira.

No, it doesn’t make any sense but no matter, because Humrichouser keeps things humming along with well-timed humor and energetic musical numbers.

The story becomes the perfect backdrop for some 80s musical nostalgia. Lapekas, who makes a lovely demigod ingenue, uses a little “Magic” to transform into a California beach babe. The superbly funny Mikhailova and Lewis growl and gyrate their way through “Evil Woman.”

The roles of Sonny and Danny are less colorful, but Gallagher imbues his beefcake artist with a sweet streak, while Frazier offers a lot of heart to the role of a heartless entrepreneur who rues his lost love, with “Don’t Walk Away.”

This is all camp, and no one has more fun camping it up than R.J. Soule as Zeus, Greek god-in-chief. Whether thrusting his finger skyward to summon a blast of lightning or donning disco glasses to take a final pose atop Pegasus, Soule dusts every moment with glee.

Also fully bringing the audience into the moment is the inventive set by David Kyhn, which utilizes bold video projections. Particularly effective was the watching the muses step into the mist then reappear in the mural that is their portal to Olympus and when Kira speeds through the galaxy astride Pegasus.

It’s clear that the cast and crew of “Xanadu” fully embrace Zeus’ notion that life is never more perfect than when it combines love and the joy of making art. They loved making their art and sharing “Xanadu” with their opening night audience.

This review supported by The Arts Coverage Initiative, a collaboration between Encore and the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo and funded by a grant from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation.

Linda Mah

Linda Mah was an award-winning journalist for 27 years, covering everything from arts to higher education to courts. While working at the Kalamazoo Gazette, she also wrote a column which frequently featured the exploits of her twins, Ava and Lena (and because everyone wants to know — they recently graduated from college and have started careers in Seattle and Chicago, respectively). Linda resides in Kalamazoo and works for Kalamazoo Public Schools.

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