Kitsch is Broadway gold right now, and audiences everywhere are salivating for glimpses into glittering wonder-worlds known only to decades past. Why else would producers pour millions into staging a 1980 roller-disco movie known for its terrible acting, awful dialogue, and Gene Kelly in tassels? Nostalgia and vintage pop songs have unquestionably revived enthusiasm for Broadway, and Xanadu has both in spades.
But you can’t directly transplant Xanadu’s smiling innocence 30 years on, not after MTV and Bill Clinton. The play has no choice but to skewer its source, upending all tacky earnestness and injecting enough irony to make it palatable for both the initiated and the Xana-virgins. Cheyenne Jackson is a comic delight as Sonny, the air-headed L.A. street painter, and his powerful vocals could melt the gruff off the hardest of cynics. Mary Testa steals the show as villain Melpomene, her rendition of ‘Evil Woman’ a star turn worthy of SNL.
The show cut many of the elaborate dance numbers featured in the film, adding pages of new dialogue to explain a highly altered plot. One must wonder at the necessity of trying to make new sense out of Xanadu. A mountain of exposition had me waiting impatiently for a showstopper. Sadly, the overbuilt stage left an area too confined to allow for much disco magic.
I really shouldn’t quibble. Xanadu is a delight, especially for longtime fans. I only worry that sincerity is something we’re losing altogether from commercial theater. Composers once came to Broadway to move audiences, not just to jab them in the ribs. Now writers are unearthing librettos so kitschy their success requires they be salted with sarcasm until bone dry. The only thing to do is get used to it. There’s still The Apple and Grease 2 left to do.