★★★☆☆ Camp doesn’t begin to describe the glittery, spandex-laden excess of Xanadu.

Hayes Theatre, Sydney
May 17, 2016

“This is like children’s theatre for 40-year-old gay people,” squeals Calliope, muse of Epic Poetry half way through Xanadu, and to judge from the hoots of pleasure and clutching of pearls on opening night at the Hayes Theatre, they’ve pretty much hit target audience. The show, a 2007 take on a 1980 Olivia Newton-John film so bad the Golden Raspberries were allegedly created just to do it justice, can lay reasonable claim to be the campiest of all the campy retro musicals on the scene. Its secret weapon is that it’s trash and it knows it, and in the right hands it can be a genuine laugh a minute kitsch-fest. In the case of this staging, while the hard-working cast and James Browne’s gloriously tacky costumes make for some luridly tacky fun, Nathan M. Wright’s directorial hands only prove intermittently the right ones for the job, in a show that’s too often a case of swings and roundabouts – or should that be glitterballs and spandex?

Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham

The plot is straightforward, if slight. It’s Venice, California circa 1980. Mural painter Sonny Malone is about to top himself in a bad case of artistic despair when he’s rescued by Kira, a chirpy Aussie Sheila who offers to inspire him to greater things. But Kira is in fact the incarnation of Clio, Greek muse of History (Newton-John was Terpsichore, muse of Dance in the movie) and her sister Melponene, muse of Tragedy plots to take her down by making her break her godly vow never to fall in love with a mortal. With the help of hard-hearted real estate agent Danny Maguire (also inspired by Clio back in the 1950s), Sonny and Kira transform an old theatre into a new temple to the arts (ie. a roller disco), but the ultimate test is to convince Zeus that love isn’t such a bad thing after all. Deep, eh?

With all that, Xanadu turns out to have the odd intellectual corner and bit of socio-political commentary lurking beneath the lip-gloss. It does a nice line in Greek mythology – yes, the Sirens really were the daughters of Melpomene and the river god Achelous – and the comment that artists can up the value of real estate until they are kicked out and the properties are sold to urban professionals has a horrible ring of truth about it. It sports a script with plenty of dry one-liners and a catchy score that retains the film’s hit songs while adding others courtesy of Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, but it sags a bit in the middle especially in the uninspired 1950s flashbacks.

Simon Johnson’s lighting design gets it just right, Nathan Weyer’s set is functional and Neil McLean’s sound design is pretty good (though the odd voice comes over a little piercingly). Andrew Bevis’s four-piece feels a bit surplus to requirements however, as most of the time it’s hard to tell that the cast aren’t just singing along to a giant soundtrack. As for Wright, his staging has two major faults. One, he’s working in a small space with pop songs that are repetitive and carry no real story. Result, he’s used up most of his 80s dance clichés by the end of the first number and is forced into a great deal of repetition at other times. Two, he’s decided that everyone needs to put their foot firmly on the camp pedal at all times. Result, there’s too much shouting and comedy mugging and not enough to actually engage our hearts.

Dion Bilios, James Maxfield, Jaime Hadwen, Ainsley Melham, Catty Hamilton and Kat Hoyos

Nevertheless, Wright is a reasonably smart choreographer and the production has plenty of good visual ideas – the sirens on trolleys are hysterical as are the sudden appearance in Have You Never Been Mellow? of Cyclops, Medusa and a Minotaur (oddly called a centaur in the programme). But it’s hard to do much with roller-skating on a postage stamp when all you can do is trundle round in a small circle. The finale is more ambitious, but by that time it’s clear that not everyone is entirely comfortable on wheels. There’s plenty of giggles, but perhaps not entirely for the right reasons.

The cast work their butts off. Jaime Hadwen makes a passingly fine Kira/Clio, getting a decent number of laughs out of her script and ocker accent and she’s a strong dancer. Her voice is occasionally flat low down, but she can belt nicely higher up and manages to tap into what little pathos there is in the production. Unfortunately she gets little back from her love interest. We should be rooting for poor, hapless Sonny from the get go, but Ainsley Melham plays cartoon dumb and despite a reasonable vocal performance we never really feel anything for him. Josh Quong Tart shows where this production gets it wrong by offering a moment of genuine acting as Zeus, but he’s no dancer and his Danny Maguire (the Gene Kelly role in the film) falls a little flat thanks to the lack of heart in the show’s 1950s sequences.

The hit of the show is tha fabulicious Jayde Westaby as Melpomene, showing that with timing, pizazz and a little bit of acting nous you can hit a role hard and still surprise. Her cheer-out-loud Evil Woman is an early pick-me-up, helped by a stylish soul voice, and pretty much everything else she touches turns to comic gold – she even gets away with not being much shakes on the roller-skates. Francine Cain is great value as her sisterly henchwoman Calliope, belting it out like a goodun’ and displaying a nice line in physical comedy. Dion Bilios, Catty Hamilton, Kat Hoyos and James Maxfield are the busy, doubling ensemble. Although it’s all rather relentless, each has terrific moments across a range of comic choreography and dramatic cameos.

I guess everyone has his or her own take on the 1980s, a decade that produced some of the finest work from artists like Prince, David Bowie and Stephen Sondheim. If you want a show that has something to say and contributes to the art form, perhaps give this one a miss. But if the campy excess of the fag end of disco is your thing, Xanadu may be for you.

Xanadu plays the Hayes Theatre until June 12.


Sign up to the Limelight newsletter