Playing thru November 19, 2011

OGDEN — When I agreed to review Xanadu at Weber State, I confess I knew next to nothing about the show. I was aware that it was a movie with Olivia Newton-John in the ’80s and that was about it. I had never watched the movie, and thought I did not know the music, though I found I was mistaken on the second assumption. I had heard the movie was rather silly, so I never bothered to watch it. I was a little concerned that I would not enjoy the musical. Again, I was mistaken.

The story of Xanadu centers around a young man, Sonny Malone, who is a sidewalk chalk artist feeling less than inspired with his latest creation on the beach of Venice, California. Enter the Greek muses, sisters who are intent on helping Sonny find his inspiration, which includes building a place that can combine music, dancing, art, theater, and “something athleticl” (a roller disco). The youngest muse and leader of the muses, Clio, disguises herself as “Kira,” a roller skating girl from Australia, to come down and help Sonny with his quest. There are two muses, Melpomene and Calliope, who are not happy with their sisters leadership, so they work to set a curse on their sister in order to make her fall in love with a mortal, something forbidden to muses. Saying much more would give away the story to those like myself have not seen the movie, and not knowing the story was half the fun.

The show opens with Sonny working on his chalk drawing and listening to an ’80s style walkman. Sonny, played by Sean Bishop, is wearing a typical ’80s outfit with a fanny back, high top Nikes, and shorts that are just a little too short. The entire audience was chuckling before a word was said. Then Sean began to sing along with his walkman until he noticed that we, the audience were around. He then told the audience of his lack of inspiration. His opening monologue had a great deal of charm, and quickly endeared us to the audience. This endearment continued throughout the show, such as each time he interacted with Kira, or talked about his dream. Even though the premise on the surface seemed silly, you really could not help but hope that his dream of a roller disco would come true.

After Sonny’s Monologue, Clio and her sisters, the other muses, sing “I’m Alive” as an introduction of themselves. This is when I really got a chance to look at the set design and other aspects of the production. The first thing I noticed was the lighting, designed by Austin Hull. The mix of ’80s and ancient Greek allowed for a lot of imagination in regards to lighting, and Hull did not disappoint. The use of colors, timing, and even Christmas lights in pillars helped the small black box theater come alive. There was a moment in the song “Strange Magic” where several of the cast members got to dance as silhouettes in the lighted pillars, and I was extremely impressed with the lighting design that made that moment happen.

The next technical aspect that I noticed and truly enjoyed was the makeup and hair! These aspects were masterminded by Alex Garner and Shawnee Johnson. There was a large amount of glitter used on the muses, and each of the muses had a distinct and wonderfully different hair style. Add to that the different hair styles of the ’80s and a brief flashback to the ’40s, and I could not help but be impressed with the amount of work that had to go into making the cast look so good.
Along with the makeup and hair, the costumes were also wonderful. There was an entire costume team headed up by Jean-Louise England. The costumes consisted of ancient Greek, 1980’s, and 1940’s, and a great deal of attention was paid to making sure that each aspect looked appropriate. I chuckled the first time I saw Kira wearing leg warmers, and truly laughed when I discovered the leg warmers actually had a particular importance revealed later in the show.

Finally, I was truly impressed with the choreography, also masterminded by Director and Choreographer Jim Christian. Dancing on roller skates has to be a very difficult task, and each of the members who had to accomplish this task did so quite well. There was also one moment of tap dancing done during the song “Whenever You’re Away from me” that I really enjoyed. The other song that really impressed me was “Dancin.’” The song combined musical elements and dancing from the 1940’s and 1980’s, which I could never have imagined working together. However it did, and it worked extremely well.

The entire cast was extremely gifted. I thought that each of the cast members really worked hard to portray their parts well. However, there were a few that truly stood out. The first of those was Rachel Shull, who played Melpomene, muse of Tragedy and angry sister of Clio. Shull and her partner in crime, Calliope, played by Shelby Anderson, had amazing comic timing and the ability to play off each other well. During the song “Evil Woman” the plot to bring Clio/Kira’s destruction, I was thrilled by Schull’s facial expressions. I felt she made it easy to believe that she truly relished in tragedy. Schull also has a magnificent voice that she was able to showcase during Evil woman, as well as other moments in songs such as “All Over the World.” Anderson portrayed the perfect sidekick, adding her own distinct voice and humor to the evil plot to make Kira fall in love. The other moment I loved with these two is when they were trying to get Kira to confess her true identity to Sonny, so they all start confessing. Calliope takes the opportunity to add in great humor that you have to see to believe.

I really enjoyed the dynamics between Kira, played by Breanne Welch, and Sonny. Welch and Bishop have a nice musical blend and were able to capture the audience and somehow made it believable that people can fall in love in an hour. During the song “Magic” I really enjoyed watching their facial expressions and choreography. Near the end of the show, during the song “Suspended in Time” the audience is truly hoping for a happily ever after ending.

I also really enjoyed the amount of humor in this show. Having not seen the movie, I could still tell that there was a lot of humor at the expense of the movie, and I really enjoyed that. It made me want to watch the movie. I also loved some of the one liners, such as the many times that Sonny would start laughing just to then say, “I don’t get that joke.” As well as the moment when the muses declare that “1980 is the year all inspiration left the arts.”

As a cast, the best moment musically was in the song “Don’t Walk Away.” There is a moment of a capella singing that reminds us that although this is a show that overall is just for fun, the people performing this show have extreme talent.

Having not known much about the show, I was surprised at how many of the songs were familiar. Many of the popular songs of the ’80s were showcased, and I found it very entertaining to see well known songs used to move a story along. The show was extremely entertaining, and only about 90 minutes long. I felt it would be good for most ages, and commend the students of Weber State University, as well as director Jim Christian, for putting together a wonderful evening of entertainment.

Xanadu plays in the Eccles Theater in the Val A. Browning Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of Weber State University Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Saturdays at 2 PM through November 19. Tickets are $8-11. For more information, click here.

L-R: Sean Bishop, Breanne Welch, and Rick Rea