Not to be the bearer of bad news, but… 1980 was nearly 40 years ago. Yes, it’s true. 1980 is one of those markers of times that feel a lot closer than it actually is. When you realize you’re not as young as you used to be, you groan and inevitably say something about how time is moving so fast. We all do it.
Ushering in the new decade, a small gem of a film hit theaters in 1980 called Xanadu. Running on the last fumes of disco, the film served as a cultural Polaroid of the technicolor dreamworld of roller disco, big hair and leg warmers.
When the film first came out, it barely broke even and was was met with mixed reviews. But the soundtrack went on to gain popularity, and the film became a cult classic. Twenty-seven years after its release, Xanadu hit Broadway as a stage musical garnering four Tony nominations and running for more than 500 performances. It’s now playing playing at the Garner Galleria Theatre in Denver through April 28.
Xanadu tells the story of a struggling artist named Sunny Malone from Venice Beach and a literal muse named Clio from Mount Olympus. Clio decides to help inspire Sunny on his artistic quest of opening a roller disco and disguises herself as a roller-skating Australian named Kira. Hijinks abound when Sunny needs help from a Gordon Gekko-wannabe and when Clio’s jealous muse sisters intervene.
There are many words to describe Xanadu: zany, kitchy, campy. But most of all fun. It’s a night spent at the theater immersed in playful comedic fare that leaves you with a breezy feeling. It’s not the most linear or logical story, but it’s self-aware enough to know that. Xanadu capitalizes on its lighthearted nature and doesn’t take itself too serious. There are audience participation gags, ribbon dancing, horses with wigs, and not one, not two, but three fake limbs that serve up some belly laughs.
Xanadu is a jukebox musical featuring the songs of English rock band Electric Light Orchestra and Olivia Newton John, who was the star of the original movie. The hits include some jams like “Strange Magic,” “Have You Never Been Mellow” and “Evil Woman,” which is a song almost impossible to sing without doing a vocal breakdown. The music for the show perfectly matches its plot and attitude.
The Garner Galleria’s production featured a small cast on a small stage, but even so, the night delivered a production of Zeus-like proportions. The cast of five — Lauren Shealy, Marco Robinson, Aaron Vega, Sheryl McCallum and Sarah Rex — jump between roles and seem to be having fun while putting on the show, which always makes it a pleasurable experience for the audience to watch.
The cast is led by by Lauren Shealy, who delivers a bright and charismatic performance as Clio/Kira. Gliding across the stage with a beauty pageant smile, Shealy portrays a goddess-adjacent, fish out of water trying to fit in on the streets of Venice Beach. The best part of her performance is her sing-song, faux Australian accent, which functions like a catchy tune that you don’t want to get out of your head.
When considering the musicals that define the past 20 years of theater, Xanadu sticks out like a neon sweatband. Not every musical can be Hamilton. And that’s OK! Xanadu is peak escapism, which is a welcome cotton-candy treat every now and again.
With a magnifying glass and a a chisel, one can find a deeper meaning in Xanadu. There are feminist hints about overthrowing Zeus’ patriarchal rules, and there are thoughtful musings on the importance of art. But mining for depth can sometimes be a misguided task.
Legendary Broadway director Hal Prince tells an amusing theatrical anecdote about an exchange he had with Andrew Lloyd Webber about Cats. Offering a thorough analysis behind the musical, Prince compared one of the cats to Queen Victoria and speculated how the other cats could be representative of other key British politicians, but Webber replied, “Hal, it’s just about cats.”
Xanadu is a silly, kaleidoscope of fun. And that’s all it needs to be.
On the bill: Xanadu. Denver Center for Performing Arts, Garner Galleria Theatre, 14th and Curtis streets, Denver. Through April 28.