MAGNA — I’ve lived in Utah most of my life, yet I’ve never been to the Empress Theatre before. I was a bit apprehensive at first. However, when I entered the theater I immediately felt the sense of small town community the staff seemed to exude.
Xanadu is one of those cult shows that the audience will leave either loving it or hating it. The musical, with book by Douglas Carter Beane and music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, is based on the 1980’s film by the same name. Although the film was a flop, it gathered a cult following. Fast forward to 2007 when the Broadway production opened later that year and was nominated for several Tony awards, although it did not win any.
Xanadu is about the mythical and magical journey of the Greek muse, Clio (also known as Kira) and her love for a street artist named Sonny. As a muse, Clio has eight sisters, all of whom the audience meets in the first song. The other muses agree with Clio that she should visit Venice Beach, California, to inspire artist Sonny Malone. Clio disguises herself by wearing roller skates and leg warmers, speaking in an Australian accent, and using the name Kira. The time is 1980, and Kira seeks to guide Sonny Malone is his quest to open an art center/roller disco. Two of Kira’s evil sisters then cast a curse on Kira and things go awry when she falls in love with the mortal Sonny.
The Empress Theatre’s Production of Xanadu is one that will audiences laugh out loud or leave feeling consumed with over the top goofiness. The opening number “I’m Alive” set the tone for the whole first act. Despite the somewhat lackluster ensemble performance (many of the ensemble seemed bored in their singing and in performing Michael Todd McKinlay’s choreography), lead actress Jennica Henderson carried the song. Henderson (the perfect vocals to suit her role of Kira/Clio. Henderson’s smooth voice was strong, yet had an easy and dreamy quality to it. As Henderson performed the next song “Magic,” she once again showed just how well her voice fit the part of Kira, and “Magic” was one of the performance highlights from the show. The song flowed, both musically and in its staging, much better than many other songs in the show, thanks to the direction of Jake Andersen and vocal direction of Melissa Buxton. Henderson’s costar, Zac Freeman (who played Sonny Malone), was not as vocally strong as Henderson. However, he delivered his opening lines with that perfect “Southern California hang loose” kind of attitude that fit the part of Sonny.
While most of Kira’s sisters played their goddess parts in a satisfactory manner, one in particular stands out. Although Derek Green (who played Terpiscore) acted his part convincingly, he too often seemed to be pulling focus from the leads. His constant arm waving and fluttering movement seemed more of a tool to attract laughs than to lend support to the lead actors. This might have been the director’s intent, though it at times was distracting. Another vocal highlight was Rebecca Walk (as Melopmene) and JoAnne Galloway (as Calliope) in their performance of the song “Evil Woman.” Walk had a stronger, more belting type voice, yet that didn’t stop Galloway from adding her funny contrast by singing overly nasally.
Quinn Nielson played Danny Maguire, the rich owner of the property where Sonny wants to have an art center/roller disco. Although Nielson played his part fairly well, I often failed to see more of the ruthless business man in Danny, and the character didn’t seem to contrast the hippie-like Sonny Malone. Too often Nielson’s lines felt more like an annoyed neighbor than a greedy corporate tycoon. However, Nielson’s portrayal grew more convincing in the scene where Kira’s evil sisters convince Danny to tear down the theater in exchange for piles of money. Nielson’s eyes lit up and his movement and hand gestures were perfect for the interaction between him, and Calliope, and Melopmene (Kira’s evil sisters).
The song “All Over The World” is where the Empress Theatre’s cast excelled, and the energy from the song was contagious. Although the choreography could have been tighter and more in sync, the cast smiled and thoroughly seemed to be enjoying themselves. This strong number lead into the song “Don’t Walk Away” in which Kira decides she needs to leave Sonny and return back to Mt. Olympus. I applaud the Andersen and McKinlay for staging this number so that it included many little laugh out loud moments that came from the ensemble. One such moment was when all the Greek Chorus were surrounding Kira pulling at her. That juxtaposed to Sonny’s pining for Kira to stay really made the number work.
However, the first number in the second act, “All Over The World – Reprise” felt unnecesary. This, of course, is not the fault of the theatre, but rather my dissatisfaction with how the musical was written. But the production redeemed itself after the song “Magic – Reprise” with some of the best acting of the show. Henderson and Freeman convincingly played their reactions to one another naturally and organically. This was especially evident as Kira portrays her frustration and pain towards Sonny in the number “Fool.” However, the following song, “Suspended in Time,” was lacking. Although both Henderson and Freeman managed to carry their parts, they didn’t seem to complement each other’s voices very nicely. The song seemed to be slightly out of Freeman’s range.
Although the set was very minimal what pieces were included enhanced the show. Set designer Jake Anderson and scenic artist Matt Green did a good job of showing the transition between the various scene locations. I also applaud light and sound designer Michael Thrall for incorporating interesting lighting elements throughout the show, although mostly at the beginning of Xanadu.
If you are looking for a light hearted, goofy laugh out loud comedy with tons of great one line jokes and dialogue, then Xanadu is the show for you. However, if too much over the top cheesy silliness is not your thing, Xanadu might be one to pass on. With a score of songs that ooze fun and liveliness, the cast at Empress seeks to just entertain.