Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Through Feb. 10th, Thurs.-Sat.,
8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. • $22-$25
We’ve heard of great date movies but Thalian Association has a wonderful date show taking place for a delightful, sweet and unusual way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Yes, I am talking about Thalian Association’s production of “Xanadu: the Musical (no, really).”
For the last 10 years, it seems that we have been besieged by stage adaptations of movies—“Evil Dead,” “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along Blog,” “White Christmas,” “Debbie Does Dallas,” among them. Though the live adaptation of “Xanadu” relies heavily on the fabulous soundtrack of the film, the stage show has a stronger emphasis on the muse/ancient Greek storyline and a strong tongue-in-cheek self-mockery. Set primarily in Venice Beach, California, in 1980, the show opens as a talented, gorgeous but strikingly dumb young artist named Sonny Malone (Max Korn). Malone is finishing a mural depicting the muses of ancient Greece, and struggling with the eternal doubt and questions of the artistic temperament. Clio (Shannon Playl), leader of the muses, hears his need and decides to go to him in disguise as “Kira,” a roller skater with an Australian accent. Along the way she not only helps Sonny find his dreams, but also saves an old scrooge named Danny Maguire (R. Manley Lucas) from his own miserliness. She endures it all while unknowingly battling a curse placed upon her by two of her nine sisters, Melpomene (Kaitlin Baden) and Calliope (Heather Setzler). It’s a full day of work, to say the least.
Director Tom Briggs must have felt like he received a gift from the gods when Shannon Playl auditioned for this role. She looks like Olivia Newton-John (from the film), with her beautiful blonde hair, lovely figure and luminescent skin. Even better, she looks like Kerry Butler (who originated the role on Broadway). Good lord, can she sing! It would have to be intimidating to take on a role consisting primarily of songs made famous by Newton-John, but Playl goes at the score with verve, confidence and a voice that packs an ongoing punch. From the first stanza of “I’m Alive,” she hooks the audience! I hope when the 2013 Wilmington Theater Award nominations come up, she gets recognized. Besides her great singing, she plays comedy with ease. And she dances. And did I mention she does it all on roller skates?
Playing opposite Playl is Max Korn as Sonny Malone (winner of Best Newcomer at the theater awards last month and featured in encore’s Emerging Talent last year). Fans of Korn will not be disappointed; he is a delight in this role. From “Spamalot” to “Spring Awakening” to “Next to Normal” to “The Most Happy Fella,” he clearly maintains range. But the comedy in this show is hard to play well, something that requires a total straight-faced naiveté to nail it; Korn does. It’s a heavy role to carry, and both he an Playl are onstage almost constantly. The writing is sharp and incisive with lots of one-liners (think of “M*A*S*H” with a lot more self-deprecating references), so if the actors don’t embrace the jokes, the audience will miss them entirely. Korn sells the humor without breaking character or sacrificing his role. Best of all, the audience slowly finds they’re really rooting for the young lovers. Playl and Korn completely convince us that within this absurdly ridiculous premise, they are falling in love in spite of some overwhelming odds.
Briggs has a real eye for casting. Among his inspired choices: Calliope is played by Heather Setzler. Setzler is no stranger to Wilmington audiences (“Man of La Mancha,” “9 to 5,” “Anything Goes”); she is beautiful and has a wonderful voice. Consequently, if frequently, she gets cast as the love interest. How wonderful to see her in a comedic role! If it is possible to refer to anyone in this hysterical show as “the comic relief,” it would be Setzler. She dons an obnoxious nasal inflection and cat-eye glasses.
Kaitlin Baden apparently stepped into the role of Melpomene at literally a moment’s notice. During the curtain speech, we were informed she would be taking over for Stephanie Holland Newkirk. Baden pulls it off immaculately! The dancing, blocking, singing and performance all look pitch-perfect.
The ensemble of the show has their work cut out for them, but what fun it must be! Besides muses, they play sirens, gods, and for the song “Have You Never Been Mellow,” they come out as a Cyclops, Medusa and Centaur—something to be seen to be believed. “Sight gag” is a term that does not do this justice.
Still, one of the best moments comes in complete seriousness. It is a flashback for Danny Maguire to his young life during “Whenever You’re Away From Me.” Suddenly, Jason Aycock appears as the young Maguire. He tap dances a wonderful interlude with Playl. It must have been an obvious choice: Who in town has the looks, the skill and the talent to play Gene Kelly (from the movie)? It might be time for someone to think about producing “Singin’ in the Rain” again.
The band is great, with big shoes to fill in scoring Electric Light Orchestra. How does a four-piece (Jonathan Barber and Chiaki Ito on keyboards, Rob Murphrey on drums and Gary Steele on guitar) compete with a multi-piece mini-orchestra? They do it beautifully. They are onstage and interact with the actors, which adds another piece to the campiness this show embraces.
For a wonderful evening of laughter, joy, and a sweet love story that will leave you giddy inside, “Xanadu” is the ticket!