Roger Castellano admits he was astonished when "Xanadu," the new stage musical version of the old Olivia Newton-John movie bomb, was greeted with opening night raves by normally no-nonsense Broadway critics.
"Many of my friends were in the 1980 movie. It was the disco era, which was colorful, fun and exciting. What could go wrong?
"I couldn't wait to see it," says Castellano, who grew up in Los Angeles and launched his now-international career by singing and dancing in live shows and parades at Disneyland.
But to Castellano's disappointment, the $20 million movie about a beautiful Greek muse (with an obviously Aussie accent), who inspires a young California artist to reach the pinnacle of his talent by opening a roller disco, was laughed off the screen by critics and barely broke even at the box office. But the music by British symphonic rock group Electric Light Orchestra, later just called ELO, made the soundtrack a hit, spawning five individual Top 40 hits, and, eventually, elevating the movie to cult status.
"When I heard that they were turning the old movie into a stage musical, I thought, 'Terrible idea. It will close in one night,'" Castellano says. But the show was an overnight hit in 2007, even snagging Tony nominations for best musical and book, because it essentially spoofs its own incoherent mythology and glittery, mirror-ball shallowness while capitalizing on the still beloved music like "Magic," "All Over the World" and the hauntingly lovely title tune.
The New York Times described the new "Xanadu" as "indefensible and irresistible... (but with) so much silly bliss to be had." The New Yorker added that "In its wildness and ecstasy, it is far sleazier and cheesier than conventional music theater...it points out how tame most other musicals are."
Wayne Bryan, Music Theatre's artistic visionary for the past 24 years, agrees — although more circumspectly. "Xanadu" is sandwiched between the seriously dark "Sunset Boulevard" and the major coup of "Disney's The Little Mermaid," and Bryan says with a sly grin, "This is the mindless fun one of the summer."
Nobody is more surprised than Castellano, now in his 10th season as guest artist here, that he is directing and choreographing the show that once caused him so much embarrassment for his friends.
"And I'm having a lot of fun doing it because I'm looking at it as a new art form. I'm turning our cast members into quadruple threats: acting, singing, dancing and skating. Adding skating to dance requires a little different approach because you have to make going in a straight line or a circle look interesting," says Castellano, who established his own skating cred 30 years ago in the Tomorrowland Unit for parades over cobblestones and railroad tracks.
Emily Mechler, University of Oklahoma graduate and four-year MTW veteran who will make her Broadway debut next spring in the revival of "Evita," plays Clio (pronounced KLY-oh), the muse of history, who mysteriously materializes in California when she detects an artist in need of inspiration. She modernizes her name to Kira and, to fit in, disguises herself as a roller babe in short skirts and leg warmers. In tongue-in-cheek homage to Olivia Newton-John, she also affects an Aussie accent.
Playing the hapless, hopeless artist, Sonny, is Josh Sassanella, who made his debut here last summer in "Smokey Joe's Cafe" and has spent much of the past year on the road with the national tour with "Rock of Ages." Poor Sonny doesn't believe he has enough talent as an illustrator, even though his sidewalk chalk drawing of the nine Greek muses becomes a magic portal between their world and ours. His big dream is to turn a neglected, boarded-up nightclub into a roller disco and bring glittery life back to his neighborhood.
And Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow (original casts of "The Scarlet Pimpernel," "Smokey Joe's Cafe," "Dreamgirls"), also seen here last summer in "Smokey Joe's Cafe, plays Danny, a one-time musician who was visited by Kira/Clio 40 years before but abandoned his artistic dreams for the stability of a regular paycheck. When Kira returns to help Sonny, she stirs an old memory in Danny, who wonders if it's not too late to be inspired again.
Playing Clio's jealous older sisters, who conspire to make her fall in love with a mortal and be banished by their father, Zeus, are local favorites Betti O. as Melpomene, muse of tragedy, and Patty Reeder as Calliope, muse of song.
The set by New York-based Robert Andrew Kovach is designed with several layers of sturdy ramps to allow skaters access all over the stage and create locations from Venice to a gaudy roller disco full of mirror balls to even Mount Olympus.
The colorful costumes by New York-based Tiia E. Torchia are a blend of 1980s rainbow-hued shorts and off-the-shoulder Greek silhouettes.
In an unusual move, 16 audience members will be allowed to sit on stage as an integral part of the action. The 90-minute show, which opens Wednesday and runs through Sunday, will also be performed with no intermission.
If You Go "Xanadu"
What: Fourth show of 40th anniversary season for Music Theatre of Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $57-$22 evenings, $49-$20 matinees (discounts for seniors, students, military and groups); call 316-265-3107 or go online at www.mtwichita.org