Xanadu, starring Olivia Newton John, bombed as a movie in 1980. It even won a Razzie Award as one of the worst films Hollywood produced that year. Its fortunes turned upward when Jeff Lynne, John Farrar and Douglas Carter Beane reconstituted it for Broadway, where it won four top Tony Award musical nominations.
The kid-friendly romantic comedy fuses Greek mythology with the Venice, California roller skating scene. The preposterous mix of Zeus with an 80’s roller disco provides a funny backdrop throughout the roughly two-hour play.
A frustrated artist named Sonny Malone (Greg Twomey) is unable to come up with a revolutionary artistic idea. He’s likeable, though not especially profound. He seems more like a college architecture student who is stuck trying to figure out his next project for school.
The Greek gods take pity on Sonny and send down the demi-god Clio to be his muse and inspiration. “It is a curious thing about these humans,” Clio tells her demi-god sisters. “They all know they will die yet they are determined to create something.”
Clio ( Heather Marie Beck) pretends to be an Australian roller skater who inspires Sonny to think of an idea for converting an abandoned building into a roller disco named Xanadu. But along the way, she lets her demi-god stature drop to the low level of humans by falling in love with Sonny. Zeus, the king of the gods, is intolerant of mixed relationships. “The penalty for loving a mortal is eternal damnation in the netherworld,” the god Hermes (David Gregory) warns Clio. She tries to pull herself away from Sonny by admitting she is not human and that she must leave him. Sonny is cast into despair. “But I need you here, just to be around,” he protests.
Clio and Sonny then appeal in the name of love to Zeus, who spares Clio but orders that she must sacrifice her immortality. “Clio may live,” Zeus proclaims, prompting a wave of celebration among the gods. Clio and Sonny then return to the bliss of their Venice, Calif., roller disco to live out their days together. Clio’s evil sister Melpomene, (Maria Egler) gloats at what she thinks is Clio’s bad choice. “Clio has gotten what she deserves, to live and die in L.A.,” Melpomene says. Even Director Daniel McDonald described the concept as “silly.”
The 14-member cast, backed by a live band on stage, shined in the production numbers “Strange Magic” and the title pop classic “Xanadu.” Other songs, such as “Evil Woman,” were adequate, but not much more.
The choreography was simplistic, given the fact that some of it was done on roller skates on the small stage. The dance numbers were well-synchronized but not striking.
Two performances stood out: Heather Marie Beck, playing the lead role of Clio, who has a charming, crisp voice, especially for the romantic pop songs, should be on every casting director’s list. Most recently, she has been featured in Damn Yankees, Rent and Cinderella. And Katie Grace Heidbreder, who played the demi-god Euterpe, was noteable in the dance sequences for her sense of feeling and character.
Like most dinner theaters, the set was sparse to allow all of the roughly 75 guests on a recent evening to see what was happening. The props were simple but effective. An attachment trailing behind one actor turned him into a centaur. Rough head gear that looked like it was made from papier mache turned the hair of an actress into snakes to evoke an image of the evil Medusa.
Since 1996, Toby’s Dinner Theatre has won 7 Helen Hayes Awards and had 58 nominations. Toby Orenstein, namesake of Toby’s Dinner Theatre and its artistic director, is herself a Helen Hayes Awards winner for her direction of Jeckyl and Hyde: The Musical. Known for her ability to spot young talent, she is also the creative force behind The Young Columbians, a touring musical troupe that has played at the White House and Wolf Trap.
Book by Douglas Carter Beane . Music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne & John Farrar
Directed by Daniel McDonald
Produced by Toby’s Dinner Theatre
Reviewed by Tom Ramstack
Running time: Approximately 2 hours, with one 30-minute intermission