Review: Xanadu (Matthew Management / Hayes Theatre)

xanaduVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), May 12 – Jun 12, 2016
Book: Douglas Carter Beane
Music & Lyrics: John Farrar, Jeff Lynne
Director: Nathan M. Wright
Choreography: Leah Howard, Nathan M. Wright
Musical Direction: Andrew Bevis
Cast: Dion Bilios, Francine Cain, Catty Hamilton, Kat Hoyos, Jaime Hadwen, James Maxfield, Ainsley Melham, Josh Quong Tart, Jayde Westaby
Image by Frank Farrugia

Theatre review
1980 is not exactly a great many lifetimes ago, but we have certainly lost a considerable measure of innocence since then. The Xanadu stage musical is a recent incarnation of the now cult classic film that materialised at the very dawn of the 80’s, and judging by the thoroughly farcical approach now taken, twenty-first century life seems to be very cynical indeed. Gone are all the naive idealism and whimsical romance that had accompanied Electric Light Orchestra’s bubblegum pop for the original, replaced by post-modern campery so sardonic, Liberace and Mae West are blushing in their respective graves (maybe with jealousy, but hard to know for sure).

The Xanadu film was never well regarded by critics, and its box office takings were disappointing, but it retains a significant place in pop culture history chiefly for the hugely successful music that it features. It makes sense that Douglas Carter Beane would re-write the piece exposing all the silliness of the story so that we can laugh with his version, instead of laughing at it as was often the case with its predecessor, but there is a compromise to the substantial presence of the original songs that does not always find harmony. Beane can subvert everything in the book, but shoehorning his comedy into the perfectly constructed pop masterpieces often feels antipodal and frankly, a waste of opportunity. Instead of improving the storytelling around the euphoric compositions of passion, he tries to re-engineer them for his comedic purposes with mixed results. Nonetheless, the show is by and large, a very funny one, in the style of a “children’s show for 40 year-old gay people” as one of its character states.

Director Nathan M. Wright rises to the challenge of bringing a tenacious and flamboyant vibrancy to the work, never missing a beat with his show’s unrelenting hammy humour. Always engaging and always in jest, every weakness of the 1980 film is turned into a knowing joke, as are the few effective poignancies from the original. The love story takes a back seat, making way for amusing and frivolous characterisations taking centre stage, performed almost vaudevillian in style, by an impressive cast that seems to have no limits to their abilities. It is not every day that we see people singing, dancing, acting and making us laugh, all at once, and on roller-skates no less. Jaime Hadwen is perfect for the role of Kira, sent from the heavens to raise Xanadu from its ashes. Hadwen’s comedic skills win us over from her first appearance, and while the tender warmth that she is able to inject surreptitiously, is easily overlooked in a mélange of frenzy, it is that quality of sweetness that keeps us endeared and quite miraculously, invested in. Her singing is exuberant and accomplished, but more creative sound design is required to live up to Olivia Newton-John’s legendary recordings. Xanadu may not be perfectly conceived, but its execution is top-notch, especially by the performers who give it their all on stage.

Kira discovers that the reason for humans striving hard for art, is linked inextricably to our mortality. As daughter of Zeus, her life is eternal, but the only way for us to live beyond the last breath is to establish legacy. The fact that Xanadu has endured against all odds through the decades, serves as inspiration to all of us who suffer from lapses of confidence in our work and indeed, other parts of life. We may not always receive affirmation and recognition for the things we do, but it is important to realise the ripple effect of even the smallest of our efforts. We cannot see every tomorrow, but the ones we touch will carry something of us into the days ahead, like “where Alph, the sacred river, ran / Through caverns measureless to man /
Down to a sunless sea.” (Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge)