May 24, 2012 at 9:44 am EDT | by Brian T. Carney
Escapism on skates

Signature Theatre
4200 Campbell Ave.
Arlington, VA
Through July 1

Charlie Brady, center, as Sonny in Signature’s ‘Xanadu.’ (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy Signature)

The “Xanadu” chracter Muse Calliope is onto something when she says the roller derby in the show is like “children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people.”

On stage now at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, this trashy movie-turned-Tony-winning Broadway adaptation is near-perfect theatrical escapism.

It’s based on the 1980 turkey that derailed the budding movie career of singer Olivia Newton-John and that featured the last movie appearance of the legendary dancer Gene Kelly as the tycoon who has chosen commerce over art. The basic plot remains the same.

Clio (Erin Weaver) is the leader of the Muses, the Greek demigoddesses who bring artistic inspiration to mortals. Disguised an Australian woman named Kira (a comic nod to  Newton-John’s indelible cinematic performance), she descends to earth to bolster the confidence of Sonny (Charlie Brady), a sidewalk artist who dreams of opening a roller disco. She also encounters Danny, a real estate mogul who rejected Kira’s inspiration. Danny still owns the theater he built under her influence, and he and Sonny become business partners. Needless to say, despite a few curses, several broken rules, and some heartbreak and confusion, Sonny and Kira/Clio fall in love and skate off to their happy ending.

Writer Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed” and “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar”) nimbly fleshes out the movie plot with campy pop culture references and a delicious new subplot featuring the nasty machinations of Clio’s jealous sisters, the muses Melpomene and Calliope. He also expands the movie soundtrack with other period pop tunes by Jeff Lynne (ELO) and John Farrar. As you might expect, the openly gay Beane brings a light touch to the clichéd plot, but he also brings some unexpected emotional depth to the story. Although the evening moves along briskly (90 minutes without an intermission), there are some slow spots (most notably the flashbacks between the ageless Clio and the young Danny) and Beane’s adaptation never fully embraces the movie’s sappy-yet-moving theme that the elusive Xanadu is the pursuit of love and art.

Under the assured hand of director and choreographer Matthew Gardiner, Signature Theatre’s openly gay associate artistic director, the creative team stitches together a frothy and effective show that is truly “an Acme of all the arts” (to use Sonny’s description of his roller disco dreams). Gardiner’s witty and energetic choreography cannily combines a send-up of disco moves for the mortals with a spoof of Martha Graham routines for the Muses and Greek gods.

He gets solid support from his designers, especially the lighting by Chris Lee (with the mandatory mirror balls) and the costumes by Kathleen Geldard (with lovely flowing Grecian robes, the requisite sequins and de rigueur leg warmers that play a surprisingly important role in the plot). They mine the comedy for all it’s worth, hit all of the right notes of the 1980s pop score (kudos to Music Director Gabriel Mangiante and his four-piece band) and put together lovely stage pictures.

Gardiner also gets strong performances from his likeable leads and a versatile ensemble that appear in a variety of roles from Centaurs to Muses to an endless array of back-up singers. Brady and Weaver play the comedy just right, with the proper balance of naiveté and campy self-awareness. Both are strong and attractive singers and dancers who bring unquenchable enthusiasm to the bubbly material.

The show shines most brightly, however, when Nora V. Payton takes center stage as Melpomene, the evil Muse of tragedy. She gets the best material in the script and she delivers with zest and finesse. Payton (who inspired audiences as Motormouth Maybelle in “Hairspray” and will no doubt thrill audiences as Effie in next season’s “Dreamgirls”) lights up the stage with her wicked sense of style, an incredible vocal presence and her gleeful delivery of verbal and physical zingers. She is given great comic and vocal support from her evil henchwoman Calliope (played by Sherri L. Edelen who also shines in a giddy cameo as a Francophile Aphrodite, goddess of love). Their duet of the rock classic “Evil Woman” is a highlight of the evening.

The skating, under the guidance of Gregory Vander Ploeg, is impressively staged and includes the tender duets between Kira and Sonny, Kira’s hilarious descent down on a staircase wearing only one skate, and the rollicking finale which brings the entire cast to the new roller disco.

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