With a show that’s all about creating the ultimate roller disco as a fusion of music, graphics, movement, fitness — and maybe even a little chutzpah — I was hoping for just a tad more fancy skating in Music Theatre of Wichita’s premiere of “Xanadu.”
Guest director/choreographer Roger Castellano from Los Angeles shoehorns almost all of it into the titular finale and lets the skaters individually unleash a few tricks, from cartwheels to sit-stands to handstands.
Most of the couple skating is merely straight lines or conga lines and a few simple lifts.
Opening night, everybody was so cautious about not falling or overshooting the stage that it blunted the energy level — like racing with brakes on. Hopefully, joyous abandon will break out now that confidence has been established.
That said, “Xanadu” otherwise is a gaudy, silly surprise and delight that makes clever lemonade out of a clunky lemon — the 1980 Olivia Newton-John movie of the same name — by spoofing itself and its shallow disco-era mentality through a sharply satirical new book by Douglas Carter Beane.
The original music by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, which became a hit despite the old movie, is lovingly reworked and given new life.
The tale is about an ancient Greek muse who feels the vibe of an artist desperately needing inspiration and magically appears to help him. She’s thinking Renaissance in Venice, Italy, in 1780, but winds up in Venice, Calif., in 1980 where creativity has hit its lowest point.
The artist she is trying to inspire decides that the ultimate expression of his talent will be fixing up an old theater into a roller disco. Yes, really.
Emily Mechler, a MTW veteran who will make her Broadway debut next spring in the revival of “Evita,” makes a beautiful and powerfully tuneful Kira, the name she takes to fit into Southern California in the guise of a roller babe in short skirt and leg warmers.
Mechler gives the right comic touch to a ridiculous accent in paying homage to Newton-John, essentially becoming an Aussie valley girl. She seems just as comfortable belting out an anthem like “I’m Alive” as softly harmonizing through a romantic duet like “Magic” or “Suddenly.”
Josh Sassanella plays Sonny, the frustrated, introspective and somewhat clueless artist who wants to do something big but doesn’t know what. The lanky, likable Sassanella, who just finished the national tour of “Rock of Ages,” is familiar from his MTW debut in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.”
Here, his Sonny is sort of a musical late-bloomer in the show. His romantic duets with Kira only hint at the possibilities. Not until he cuts loose with “Don’t Walk Away” do we hear the power of his high rock range.
Broadway veteran Kevyn Morrow, who also was in “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” last summer, plays Danny, a former musician that Kira had visited and inspired 40 years before but who gave up on his artistic dreams.
When he sees her return for someone new, he wonders if it is too late to be re-inspired. Morrow reveals what a warm, mellow voice he has in the swing-era reverie, “Whenever You’re Away From Me.”
Stealing the show in hammy, over-the-top, literally (there’s actually a sight gag) scene-chewing abandon are Betti O. and Patty Reeder. They play Melpomene and Calliope, Kira’s older sisters who, out of jealousy, try to sabotage her relationship with Sonny. Their “Evil Woman” is a sassy, brassy show stopper (along with their kooky unicorn hairstyles by Alena Sellers).
Music director Thomas W. Douglas and his assistant Jesse Warkentin provide the keyboards themselves for a surprisingly full-rounded sound, well-supported by Rod Martens on guitar and Steve Hatfield on drums.
The costumes by Tiia E. Torchia are some of the most flamboyantly colorful of this season, from filmy, floaty, graceful goddess gowns in rainbow hues to silvery parachute pants to disco short-shorts and skirts.
The wide-open set of ancient Greek columns plus background projections by Robert A. Kovach are evocatively enhanced by David Neville’s lighting to create such stunning imagery as sunset over an ocean clear across the stage or the interior of a hangar-sized disco with mirror balls dropping down everywhere.
If You Go:
What: Fourth show of 40th anniversary season for Music Theatre of Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall Additional performances: 8 p.m. today, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $22 to $57 evenings, $20 to $49 matinees (discounts for seniors, students, military and groups); call 316-265-3107 or go online at www.mtwichita.org.
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