The 1980 movie musical Xanadu has never seemed to be the best fodder for transition to stage, what with its woeful plot, corny dialogue and entrenchment in its era. However, in 2007 a wily Broadway adaptation written by Douglas Carter Beane, retained the best element of the movie – Electric Light Orchestra’s music – added a new sub-plot based on Greek mythology, and most importantly kept its tongue placed firmly in its cheek as it parodied its source. The result was a delicious little bite of musical comedy and 80s pastiche.

In Australia, the show has had a rocky history with a 2011 professional production staged in a tent closing after just three weeks and losing its investors over $3 million. Despite general disdain for the noisy Docklands location of the tent, critical reviews were largely positive and those who were able to see it were left with an encouraging impression of the script.

Now with a season of a very similar length, the Fab Nobs allow another small slice of Melbourne’s theatre going community to see this little gem of a show in what is arguably a similarly remote location! However, the trip to Bayswater is worth the travel if you have any interest in the show or ELO’s music.

For the uninitiated, (where have you been?) Xanadu tells the story of frustrated artist Sonny Malone, who becomes suicidal over the quality of a mural he has painted of the Greek Muses at Venice Beach, which incites them to life. The youngest muse Clio determines to inspire Sonny by disguising herself as a roller skating Australian girl called Kira (following the original casting of Olivia Newton-John) and arrives at Santa Monica pier just in time to stop him taking his life. Kira’s inspiration leads Sonny to reveal his dream of opening a roller disco and the rest of the plot involves them trying to find a venue and get it set up to a ridiculously short deadline, as set by the theatre owner Danny – a former recipient of Clio/Kira’s inspiration. Yep, it’s pretty highbrow stuff!

Thankfully, Carter Beane is far from precious with his dialogue. It is beautifully sparse, meaning that we move from one ELO classic to the next in quick succession and the inane roller disco plotline never over stays its welcome. Hits that drove the film like ‘I’m Alive’, ‘Magic’ and ‘Suddenly’ are added to with the Electric Light Orchestra tracks ‘Strange Magic’ and ‘Evil Woman’, and Olivia Newton John’s hit ‘Have You Ever Been Mellow’. It’s just one 80’s classic after another. 

Musical Director Simon D’Aquino has done a superb job of coaching his cast through the tight harmonies that are the signature of these songs. Vocal harmony in this show sounds fantastic. The cast are on point and the audience has no cause for disappointment with how the music sounds – that is except to say they are let down by poor sound desk management. If Sound Designer Shawn Klueh has intended to create a show that sounds entirely distorted, throughout both dialogue and singing, then he has achieved just that. Although surely the board full of red lights would indicate that something isn’t right? I hope that this issue will be smoothed out as the season progresses, as the quality work from the cast deserves better reproduction through audio.

Stephen Valeri’s direction takes best of advantage of the knowing dialogue and his lead cast hit each in-joke square on the head, wringing every last laugh out of the show. Some of the staging is somewhat perplexing however, with cast members on skates seeming to use the most difficult exits on and off stage, and certain elements of the ‘magic’ sections of the show falling flat. The solution found for Pegasus provides an Act 2 highlight. Oh, and that’s worth pointing out. A decision has been made to use the two-act alternative to the script (originally a 90-minute one-acter). Pleasingly, this works, doesn’t lengthen the show arduously and the small additional amount of dialogue fits the interval in seamlessly.   

As mentioned, the lead cast all work the script’s comedy well, none more so than Karl McNamara as Sonny. With McNamara’s delivery every joke lands. Vocally strong throughout, he particularly shines in ‘Don’t Walk Away’ and the duet ‘Suspended In Time’. Sonny’s partner in that number is of course Kira, as played by Emily Hall. Hall has done an outstanding job of imbuing her vocals with the tones of our “lovely Livvy”, which really adds to the appreciation of these classic numbers. With a lovely tone and both a strong head voice and chest voice, Hall’s only weakness is her passaggio, where at times she falls off pitch. Perhaps the process of the season will help strengthen these elements to create an entirely lovely vocal performance, which for the most part is great. Hall also has a great understanding of the wry comedy in the script and plays well the delicate balance of doing ‘a dingo’s got my baby’ style Aussie accent for an Australian audience.

Rounding out the principal cast are Natasha Bassett and Ruth Bishop as mischievous muses Melpomene and Calliope. Both deliver fantastic vocals in ‘Evil Woman’ and ‘Strange Magic’ and Bishop in particular milks the comedy for all its worth. As Danny Maguire, the aging theatre owner, Will Deumer is a delight. Vocals that would put most other male mature-age actors to shame are combined with palpable joy in performance and a little bit of movement too.

The ensemble of six additional muses provide excellent harmonies as mentioned previously and add colour with their cameo roles. Dance-wise they make up with enthusiasm what they lack in synchronicity. Sheona Gregg’s choreography is full of fun 80s moves that take the mickey out of that style and is well adjusted for the skills of the cast.

Valeri does double duty on set design, which is basic to say the least, but serves to function the script adequately. Costumes by Leane Gooding and Colin Morley have surprising variety and quality. Lots of lovely Grecian and 80s ensembles furnish the stage.

Overall, thank goodness for this Fab Nobs production, that more people will get to see Xanadu the stage musical and appreciate what is a hugely enjoyable show, done justice

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