Xanadu's and Don'ts

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Were it not for poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Xanadu might be forgotten, just another gaudy summer home for a rich and powerful medieval emperor. His famous poem:

        In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
        A stately pleasure dome decree

made Xanadu a centuries-old synonym for decadent luxury.

Here in Los Angeles, Xanadu is also synonymous with expensive film flops. In 1980, the film Xanadu starred Olivia Newton John (fresh off the mega-success of Grease)! Xanadu practically ended her film career -- and in the process almost killed off the movie musical for a generation. For those who haven't seen the film and are skeptical that anything could really be that bad, here's the pitch: a Greek muse comes down from Mount Olympus, via a Venice Beach mural, to inspire an artist to open a roller disco. Oh and it's a musical with Gene Kelly and songs by the Electric Light Orchestra.

And no, I'm not making this up...

This so-bad-it's almost-good movie has been collecting dust on the shelves of video stores for almost three decades, but this summer Xanadu is back—not in cinemas, but on a Broadway stage.


Xanadu (the Broadway musical) is the brainchild of Douglas Carter Beane, the playwright best known for his celebrity-obsessed comedies As Bees in Honey Drown and The Little Dog Laughed. He's kept the silly plot relatively intact but sprayed it with a thick, glossy coat of irony. All of the things that appear dated in the movie, like big hair and synthesized music, are presented with winking nostalgia. Instead of a proscenium, the director Christopher Ashley should have mounted the show under giant air quotes.

Beane takes post-modern camp to the limit in the show's finale when Tony Roberts appears as Zeus to pronounce the following prediction about art: "The muses are in retreat. Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theater? They'll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter's catalog, throw it on stage and call it a show."

Sure enough, that line gets the biggest laugh of the night. Xanadu has been a surprise hit on Broadway and it will no doubt make its way to an LA theater soon; but until then, Angelino's will have to make do with another piece of musical kitsch, titled Zanna Don't.

Zanna Don't is basically Disney's High School Musical, but here the normal kids are all gay and it's the straight kids who are closeted outsiders. The Chess Club champ is the big man on this campus and instead of cheerleaders the girls all want to be on the mechanical bull riding team.

This bizarro vision of high school is amusing for a few minutes, but Zanna Don't runs longer than two hours, mostly because its story is told in spunky songs that are twice as long as they need to be. Like Xanadu, Zanna Don't is wining over audiences with kitsch—strobe lights, smoke machines and, yes, roller skates—instead of creative stagecraft or writing. If there's a lesson here for future playwrights and actors, I guess it's: read your Coleridge and learn how to skate.

Zanna Don't continues at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre here in Silverlake through September 30; Xanadu rolls on indefinitely at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theater.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Banner image from production of Zanna Don't: David Elzer