‘Kubla Khan’ or ‘A vision in a dream’ was a poem written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the most prominent romantic poets, in 1797.
According to Coleridge, he composed that piece one evening after a vivid, opium-influenced dream. That dream followed his reading of a piece describing Xanadu, the summer palace of a Chinese emperor and Mongol ruler.
It’s remarkable to think of there being any connection between Coleridge’s eighteenth century work and the 1980 musical fantasy film of writers Richard Christian Danus and Marc Reid Rubel, inspired in part by the poem.
The film Xanadu is widely regarded as far closer to a nightmare than a dream. Providing the inspiration for the inaugural Golden Raspberry Awards (acknowledging the worst films of each year), Xanadu told the tale of a Californian street artist, who seeks to open a roller disco, a dream fuelled by his encounters with nine Greek muses who materialise before him on the sidewalk in Venice Beach.
Even in a drug-induced state, would Coleridge have been capable of conceiving of a story so ludicrous and laughable? It’s astonishing to think the likes of Olivia Newton-John (who was hot property, coming off the back of her starring role in Grease) and Gene Kelly actually signed up to be a part of the project. Somewhat less surprising was the film’s critical reception and poor box office performance.
But over the many years that have passed since Newton-John donned the skates, Xanadu has developed somewhat of a cult following and many of its songs are considered pop signposts of the era. In the mid-2000s, American playwright Douglas Carter Beane was gradually talked into re-writing Xanadu as a stage musical. Beane once told New York Magazine his initial reaction was, “This is theatre suicide wrapped up in a nice box.”
Yet in 2007, Beane’s new book, containing new subplots and humour that parodied the original film, was paired on stage with the music of Australian musician John Farrar and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, and a cast of top New York talent, including Cheyenne Jackson. Xanadu ran for over 500 performances on Broadway and has since spawned several international productions, including the latest to land at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre.
On stage, Xanadu remains the story of chalk artist Sonny Malone (Ainsley Melham) who encounters Clio, a daughter of Zeus (Jaime Hawden), disguised as an Australian woman, ‘Kira’, who inspires the idea for the roller disco. However, in Beane’s revised book, two of Clio’s sisters, Melpomene (Jayde Westaby) and Calliope (Francine Cain), are jealous of their sibling and conspire to have Clio banished from Mount Olympus.
The story remains absurd. Really, it’s as silly as it could conceivably be, but it’s somewhat more palatable here because of some actually smart cracks in the book, and because of the very self-parodied delivery of the narrative (though, at times, some of the actors work harder for laughs from the text than necessary).
Melham’s portrayal of the dense street artist is first-rate from start to finish. His delivery of lines achieves maximum comedic impact from Beane’s script, and presents Sonny in the guise in which he should’ve appeared in the 1980 film. Vocally, Melham is also impressive in his professional debut, demonstrating great tone and ensuring his vocals convey the same level of comedy that characterises his delivery of dialogue. He’s an actor likely to offer Australian audiences memorable musical theatre performances in the years to come.
Hawden also makes her mark in her first outing on the professional circuit. Her Kira is endearing and enormously entertaining, tasking Hawden with undertaking an Australian accent from the mouth of someone whose accent is, in fact, American (apparently the native accent of all inhabitants of Greece’s Mount Olympus!) Her singing is sweet and strong, and what she accomplishes on that front is all the more impressive, being done while attempting to navigate the stage on roller skates.
Westaby and Cain are also standouts, giving performances worthy of two Greek goddesses. Westaby’s acid-tongued Melpomene would quickly become an audience favourite on The Real Housewives of Ancient Greece. Meanwhile, Cain (whose Helpmann-nominated turn as Regina in Rock of Ages gave us a hint of her outstanding comedic chops) is suitably epic as Calliope. Every perfectly-placed gesture, facial expression and skilfully delivered line make her a player you can barely turn away from during several key moments of the show. A duet with Westaby on ELO’s classic hit, ‘Evil Woman’ (an addition to Xanadu for the stage), is one of the standout highlights of the production.
Fresh from his recent run as Scar in The Lion King, Josh Quong Tart also succeeds here in his appropriately earnest portrayal of Danny Maguire, the construction mogul responsible for helping Sonny realise his vision for Xanadu. There’s no denying the gravitas Tart brings to this production.
Musical director Andrew Beavis and his three band mates ensure each and every camp classic that helped to secure the film’s cult status turns the Hayes’ auditorium into the boogie wonderland it needs to become.
On the design front, Nathan Weyers’ set doubles effectively as Mount Olympus and LA’s Venice Beach, and James Browne’s impressively crafted costumes ensure the stage’s colour palette is appropriately vibrant.
While the original source material means even a revised Xanadu will never quite reach the heights of the truly plumb shows, this glittery, high energy, high camp musical will ensure the Hayes Theatre remains a real-life pleasure dome until the skates are hung up for the final time on June 12. You won’t leave Xanadu provoked into any serious contemplation or feel compelled to re-evaluate your system of beliefs, but you may just enjoy yourself, nonetheless. Perhaps, it’s best to get your skates on and find out.
Xanadu is playing at The Hayes Theatre (19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point) until Sunday June 12. To book tickets, click here