Rachel Weinberg has been a freelance theater critic around Chicago for more than three years. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Prior to that, Rachel worked for two years in digital marketing at Goodman Theatre and spent a season as a Marketing Apprentice for Roundabout Theatre Company in New York City. You can read all of Rachel's reviews at RachelWeinbergReviews.com and find her on Twitter @RachelRWeinberg.
Jim DeSelm and Landree Fleming. Photo by Michael Brosilow
Review: American Theater Company’s XANADU
By Rachel Weinberg
American Theater Company’s production of the musical XANADU (based upon the flop of a film bearing the same name) bursts with infectious energy and non-stop fun. The ensemble radiates joy throughout the show’s duration. And while the 1980 XANADU film may have been unsuccessful, the movie’s soundtrack proved a smash hit—Jeff Lynne and John Farrar’s songs are all here, with a book by Douglas Carter Beane. And the cast delivers each of these famous songs with aplomb. Under Lili-Anne Brown’s spirited direction, the ensemble takes many a gleeful spin around Arnel Sancianco’s groovy roller rink.
For the uninitiated, XANADU presents audiences with Sonny Malone, a struggling artist living in 1980 Venice Beach, California. As Sonny nears the brink of despair, the Greek muses in a mural he has painted magically come to life. The leader of the gang, Clio, is charged with inspiring Sonny to create great art—and she does so disguised as the Australian accented, roller skate wearing Kira. But in keeping with the rules of the demi-gods, she must avoid making art herself and must never fall in love with the handsome ‘80s dude before her. Naturally, this task proves a bit challenging for Clio, especially with two evil sister muses, Melpomene and Calliope, determined to bring about her downfall. Altogether, XANADU makes for 100 minutes of ridiculous and sweet fun.
Landree Fleming superbly leads the way as Clio/Kira, and she has the truly divine vocals and dynamite personality needed to fill out the role. She also glides with ease on roller skates, a difficult feat as she wears them for most of the show. She nails all of her character’s big numbers and is especially winning on the famous “Magic” (though, unfortunately, some technical difficulties with her microphone made her stellar vocals difficult to hear on the last couple of songs). Jim DeSelm makes an affable Sonny Malone and oozes that 1980s vibe in his neon orange tank top and tight denim shorts (Samantha C. Jones’s costume designs throughout are equally playful and clever). DeSelm certainly looks and acts the part, though vocally he’s not as strong a match for the outstanding Fleming. Still, he infuses his songs with so much heart that he makes up for it—it’s especially fun to see him rock out in “Dancin’.”
The ensemble of Clio’s sister muses (Kasey Alfonso, Michelle Lauto, Hanah Rose Nardone , James Nedrud, and Daniel Spagnuolo) fare equally well here and exude boundless energy. Missy Aguilar and Karla L. Beard also take great pleasure as the maniacal Calliope and Melpomene, and their rendition of “Strange Magic” is a blast. Aaron Holland rounds out the cast as crabby businessman Danny Maguire (and has a later hilarious turn as Zeus). The entire cast seems as if they’re legitimately having a ball throughout XANADU, and this makes the show even more pleasurable to watch. Brigitte Ditmars’s playful choreography further livens up the show, and the cast gamely executes the moves.
American Theater Company’s late Artistic Director P.J. Paparelli was a huge fan of the XANADU film. This production is a fitting and joyous tribute to his legacy as it captures the spirit and vivacity of ATC and also pays homage to Paparelli’s dedication to putting a Chicago-style spin on musical theater. While this is not the flashiest XANADU out there, it is heartfelt, well-sung, and the ideal show for some summer theater fun.