REVIEW: Strange Magic and Mellow Nostalgia in Spartanburg Little Theatre’s Superb ‘Xanadu’

  • Live Coverage from the Spotlight Booth at the Chapman Cultural Center

DRAMA CRITIC & SPOTLIGHT OPERATOR for Olivia Newton-John (Anna Elyse Lewis)

The musical is better than the movie. How often does a theatre critic get to utter that line?

Anyone who witnessed “Dirty Dancing” at the Peace Center two years ago can attest to what happens when a movie musical’s adaptation into a stage show goes awry. But this weekend, Spartanburg Little Theatre finds itself in a unique position (and an Upstate premiere) with “Xanadu: The Musical,” the Fringe Series show that is a glossier and much-improved version of the 1980 stinker film starring Australian pop goddess Olivia Newton-John.

First of all, the music is killer. All of the compositions are vintage and written by ELO’s Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, Newton-John’s s producer and songwriter of “You’re the One That I Want” and “Hopelessly Devoted to You.”

And audiences will fondly recall more songs than they realize. Most are bona fide Billboard hits culled from the movie’s stellar soundtrack – Newton-John’s “Xanadu,” “Suddenly” and “Magic” and Electric Light Orchestra’s “All Over the World” and “I’m Alive” – as well as early material from their repertoires such as “Evil Woman” and “Have You Never Been Mellow?”

But credit Douglas Carter Beane for making palatable this fantasy story of a Venice Beach artist Sonny Malone (Brady Coyle-Smith) who falls in love with a Greek muse Clio/Kira (Anna-Elyse Lewis), opens the Club Xanadu Roller Disco and visits Mt. Olympus.

SLT Executive Artistic Director Jay Coffman’s choice for “the best worst film ever made,” “Xanadu” was an epic failed attempt at serious filmmaking. But Beane has the luxury of hindsight and elevates the movie’s cult status and campy aesthetics to a delightful, fantasy comedy with a cheeky sense of self-awareness.

And he presents to hilarious effect, a nostalgic self-deprecation of 1980 pop culture and fashion ideals: leg warmers, roller skates, Fresca. Oh, and teen heartthrob Parker Stevenson of “The Hardy Boys.” Google him, younger readers.

Ms. Lewis, who audiences adored as Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” last September, shows why she is Spartanburg’s darling leading lady with her superb, angelic voice that conjures our Olivia from down under. She embraces her campy side as Roller Disco Barbie in pink from head to wheel (she acts and sings on roller-skates for the entire 90-minute show) and never squanders a laugh line or solo.

This is Coyle-Smith’s his first stage role since “Spamalot” at Centre Stage in Greenville over two years ago, and he is as illustrious as ever (wait until you hear him in “The Fall), even in the highest satin shorts ever, headband and knee-high tube socks.

“Xanadu” also features some other familiar faces from SLT’s Fringe Series productions: the impeccable Celia Blitzer (“The Rocky Horror Show”) and a super-sassy Elizabeth Colson (“Avenue Q”) as Clio’s jealous Muse sisters; the great BJ Hollis from “The Rocky Horror Show,” “Memphis” and “Civil War”  (You don’t want to miss his classic exit as Hermes); and supreme soprano Jade Alford, also from last summer’s “Avenue Q.”

Director Tim Baxter-Ferguson returns to the helm after last year’s naughty puppet musical and takes the stage for his first acting appearance since playing  Jean Valjean in Gaffney in 2015. He plays developer Danny Maguire, the part embodied by Gene Kelly in the film.

And playing other muses and gods are Limestone musical theatre students Zach Potter and Jessie Cantrell.

April Schaeffer choreographs Music Director Ben Chumley scores extraordinary vocal stylings from his ensemble and leads the live band (all in traditional Greek togas) that includes Karen Hampton on synthesizer, Shawn Allen on bass and guitar and Kevin Heuer on drums.

Dr. Baxter-Ferguson also designed the exquisite Greek Pantheon-inspired set (gloriously backlight by LED lighting by Peter Lamson)with built in ramps for skating and audience seating. Yes, I said it. AUDIENCE SEATING ON STAGE. There are 16 seats available for lucky individuals that want to trade-in their existing ticket in the lobby for a seat with the cast.

And Will Luther’s costumes are sparkling and effervescent, as his marvelous Xanadu sign when it makes its entrance.

Morgan Kimbrell is Stage Manager for “Xanadu” and the crew also includes Ben Abrams, Jeanna Burch, Lori Guthrie, Pam Haloulos, James Holmes, Jim Huber, Randy Moore, Jennifer Nockels, Caleb Patterson and Ashley Zimmerman.

“Xanadu” runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. at the Chapman Cultural Center. Call the box office at (864) 542-2787 or visit Tickets are $30 for adults, $27 for seniors and $20 for students. “Xanadu” is most appropriate for ages 12+.

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