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Review: "Xanadu"

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Xanadu - Riverside Playhouse - April 26,2012

The first official Opening Night Club met last night at the Riverside Playhouse to watch Music Theatre of Wenatchee's Apple Blossom production of 'Xanadu'. If you are splitting hairs, the opening night was actually on Wednesday night, which was performed for the Apple Blossom Festival members. But Thursday was the first night that was open to the public, so Opening Night Club descended on the theater and found a great show. Director Paul Atwood picked an extremely well written comedy with songs that you will be humming in your car on the drive home. Paul has been directing shows all over town for years, and his shows are consistently entertaining. His production of the musical 'Xanadu' is no exception.  

The movie Xanadu was released in 1980 and it was a big budget flop. It had a few big name stars (Olivia Newton John and Gene Kelly) and an amazing soundtrack by ELO. However, the critics' reviews were “mixed” at best. After this movie was released, it actually inspired a few movie buffs to found the Golden Raspberry Awards and give Xanadu the first Razzie for Worst Director.  

The musical Xanadu which is opening this week at the Riverside Playhouse shares the same basic plotline and most of the songs from the movie, but the similarities end there. While the movie was striving for an earnest roller-disco fantasy, the musical is played for laughs. The musical is much closer to the movie 'Airplane!' rather than 'Airport'. After discussing the campiness of the musical, one of the members of the Opening Night Club (Mike Pirkey) compared it favorably to The Rocky Horror Show. And I think the comparison fits. Just substitute togas for the fishnet. The point of Xanadu is not to teach you anything, and certainly not to shock you. It is a show that pokes fun at its script, and it does it with amazing songs.  

The music is one of the stars of this show. If you were listening to the radio in 1980, you will know half of the songs by heart. 'Magic', 'Evil Woman', 'Suddenly', 'Have You Never Been Mellow', and of course the title track 'Xanadu' are songs that I grew up with, and in most cases have been slightly twisted for comic effect. The house band was only four people, but they sounded like a full orchestra and stayed true to the rock & roll origins of the music. On opening night, Glenn Isaacson and Jeff Heminger were behind a wall of synthesizers, with Ted Scanlon on guitar and Todd Snyder on drums. From our seats (directly in front of the band), they sounded amazing.  

The interior of the theater has been outfitted by Greg Armstrong and Liam Collins to resemble a Greek theater-in-the-round. The set looks simple at first glance, but throughout the show as actors popped of the stage I realized how much planning had gone into making it look simple.  

The cast was extremely talented and included a great mix of new faces and MTW veterans. The central characters in the show are Clio, the greek muse, and Sonny Malone, a depressed sidewalk artist. Clio is played by the beautiful Ashley Armstrong, and the amazing Marlon Browne plays Sonny. I have seen some amazing performances out of both of these actors. If you were fortunate enough to see Marlon play Jesus in 'Jesus Christ Superstar' or Jim in 'Big River', you know he can sing. He has the ability to bring raw emotion into a vocal performance and bring an audience to tears. My only complaint is that we were unable to hear that side of his voice until the second act. Most of the pop-music in the show just doesn't allow for the kind of feeling he can bring.  

Ashley Armstrong had the difficult task of playing a role within a role. The greek muse Clio comes to life after being sketched by Sonny on the sidewalk, and she immediately decides to adopt a new persona. In a not-very-subtle nod to the movie, this undercover version of Clio is called Kira, wears leg warmers, roller skates, a blonde wig, and she speaks in an over-the-top Australian accent. It's a very funny bit, but difficult to do for the length of the show. Ashley has grown up onstage in Wenatchee. I remember her playing a school-girl in MTW's 2000 production of 'Anything Goes' as well as recent roles in '25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee' and 'Rocky Horror Show'. And I have to mention her starring role as 'Cinderella' at Wenatchee High School which was followed by her reign as 2004 Apple Blossom Queen. And as expected, she was beautiful and graceful on stage, everything you can expect from a Greek muse. Ashley taught herself to roller skate for this role, and she did a wonderful job. I have no idea how she was able to change her costumes and remove her skates so quickly.  

The third mortal (all of the rest of the characters are muses) was Danny Maguire played expertly by John Ryan. Mr Ryan is a relatively new face to MTW productions, but I have been impressed with every role he has taken on. He played the patriarch in 'You Can't Take It With You', as well as an amazing John Barrymore in 'I Hate Hamlet'. And in the role of 'Danny' in 'Xanadu', it turns out he can sing as well. I'm looking forward to seeing more of what John brings to the local theater scene.  

The remainder of the cast is comprised of sister muses. And although they are sisters, almost half of the sister muses are men. When this show was presented at the Fifth Avenue Theater several years ago, the male sister muses were costumed in drag. However, the local production went with flowing togas for all of the muses. However, my fourth grade daughter still leaned over to me during the first act and whispered that “it felt a little awkward to see all the men in dresses”. If I learned one things about costuming at Xanadu, it is that Jacob Scott and Mark Smeltzer can do alarmingly funny things in a ladies toga-dress, and stretch the limits on funny physical posturing.   

Now, the costuming for Xanadu is superb. Music Theatre of Wenatchee is in the enviable position of having a large group of talented costumers. Some theater groups struggle with getting volunteers willing to sew together lavish costumes and maintain them as the actors destroy them night after night. But MTW has committed volunteers who can design costumes that will really pop on stage. The costume designer for this show (Daina Toevs) was also playing a muse in this show, and she did an amazing job in both. The flowing gowns and togas were gorgeous, and put together well. Nothing is more unnerving to an actor that than to get on stage and wonder if their toga will cover the parts it needs to cover. And the specialty costumes for the mythical creatures at the end of the show were amazing. I still smile when thinking about Mark Smeltzer's centaur costume.  

The antagonists for the show are the sister-muses Melpomene and Calliope played by the wonderful Kelly Atwood and Colleen Bowen. If you have seen any musical theater in Wenatchee in the past two decades you have seen both of these actresses on stage. For my money, they have the best comic timing of any actresses in the area. They are always a pleasure to watch and I looked forward to their scenes in Xanadu. The script gives these two the best lines and the funniest bits throughout the show, and they were able to squeeze the laughs out of all of the lines as well as their songs.

The remaining sister muses took on many roles. I only wish I could have seen more of them. There were a lot of talented actors in this chorus and I enjoy the small bits where they could shine. The vocals were very strong, and at times almost seemed to overpower the band. The female muse quartet of Daina Toevs, Donna Ercanbrack, Danni Schafer-Cloke, and Danna Caron had the strongest voices I can remember in a chorus. All four of them could hold their own in a lead role. (And I just noticed how similar their names are. Did Paul plan it that way?)  

The men were equally strong and surprisingly good dancers. Most local productions struggle finding guys who can sing and dance, and this director found five of them. Jacob Scott, Aaron Getzin, Stephen Paxton, Mark Smeltzer, and Brady Dundas are strong triple threats, and it is good to see the new faces. I did want to point out the incredibly strong comic timing that Mark Smeltzer is developing. He had several bits in Xanadu that he completely nailed. I won't give them away, but watch for them. I always wanted to talk about the amazing tap solo performed by Brady Dundas in Act One. Men who can tap dance well are few and far between in this area. Most musicals that require a tap solo have to be simplified to allow a non-tapper to play the part. However, Brady Dundas was able to pull off a technically difficult tap sequence, and he was able to do it cleanly while standing on top of a desk. I don't think there have been any other tap performances on that stage that have impressed me as that one. Hats off to Brady and to Jennifer Devereaux for the great choreography throughout the show.  

I would like to also point out the specialty skating crew staffed by the members of the Apple City Roller Derby. On opening night, we saw three of Apple Cities strongest skaters: Craig Anderson (Purge-a-sin), Leo Meats (Genghis Kwad) and Rhonda Bekker (Apple Lucy). My daughters are derby fans. They saw the ACRD logo in the program and were waiting patiently to see Apple Lucy skate in the show. I definitely could have seen more of that crew.  

The members of Opening Night Club enjoyed the premiere of Xanadu and we are looking forward to the next new show. It looks like May 11 will be the next Opening Night and we have two openings on the same night. 'Lonestar' at the Hurricane and 'Once Upon a Mattress' at Cascade High School. We will try to split up and catch both of them. If you want to join us, go online and get your tickets. Also, Xanadu is running for the next four weekends. So, get your tickets early. The Apple Blossom musical has a tendency to sell out.

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