On the heels of Olivia Newton-John’s successful 1978 film debut in “Grease,” along came Ms. Newton-John in the movie “Xanadu.” She was every post-pubescent boy’s pretend girlfriend, and was seen as box office gold dust. Alas, the movie was a critical failure. However, the soundtrack was an international hit, spawning such singles as the title track, “Magic,” and “Suddenly.” It is the music (and nostalgia) that keeps the film alive, to the point that it has achieved a measure of cult hit status. It is to that audience community theater companies market the stage version. In fact, two South Sound theaters have opened Douglas Carter Beane’s “Xanadu” over the course of two months. This weekend, Bainbridge Performing Arts opened the show to enthusiastic audiences. There is something about a San Fernando Valley dialect and love on the beach that takes us all back…
One must admire actors willing to take on an iconic role. Whoever tackles Eliza Doolittle knows they will be, fairly or unfairly, compared to Audrey Hepburn. The same for Maria, cast in a community theater production of “The Sound of Music.” While Olivia Newton-John’s performance in the movie version of Xanadu doesn’t rank as one for the ages, it is a known role. In BPA’s Xanadu, the lovely Justine Stillwell interprets the Newton-John role of Kira/Clio. Except for one time, toward the end, when her skates got away from her just a bit, Ms. Stillwell was very good! As long as the singing range was alto to second soprano she sings beautifully. The unforgiving high notes were a challenge, but she soldiered on and was one of the best parts of the show. This was a return to the BPA stage for Justine Stillwell. One hopes she returns again soon.
The role of Sonny Malone is a deceptively difficult one to play. To portray Sonny, an actor must have some Spicoli/Fast Times at Ridgemont High in his arsenal without devolving into total parody. Nate McVicker, in his BPA debut, is up to the job. He isn’t a great singer, but he has the panache to air it out as if he is. That’s important in this role. He is, though, a magnificent dancer! He and Ms. Stillwell have some stage steam between them, and they work well as a team.
Matty McCaslin has had quite a year on the Bainbridge Performing Arts stage. He helped kick the season off when he camped it up as Bernadette in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” If Danny (and Zeus) is his final performance for the season he will have done good work for the BPA cause. Of the two, he was better as Danny. The land developer never got over his time with Clio, and the angst is palpable. Mr. McCaslin’s Danny is good work.
Two smaller roles deserve mention. Barbi-Jo Smith has a comedy touch and it works very well as Calliope, playing against Jessica Robins’ Melpomene. Ms. Smith’s expressive face carries the humor into the back of the room and a good number of the laughs during the show were for her work.
Young Max Vannocken-Witmer laces up his tap shoes and performs a masterful soft-shoe in a flashback scene. This young man is quite a dancer for his few years on the planet and will go as far as he wants to go in the field of movement.
Veteran theater-goers always smile when a show has a live band backing it up. If the music is as good as Elizabeth’s Light Orchestra is in this show, so much the better. The troika of Will Sanders, Jon Brenner, and Arthur Whitson sounded like a group twice as large and their contribution was notable.
Director Joanna Hardie had a good group with which to work on stage, but the supporting artistic team is a reason why this show is a success. Choreographer Heather Dawson’s task of making movement sense of a cast on skates was a daunting one indeed. Costume designer Janessa Styck portrayed 1980 as if it was last Tuesday. Finally, lighting designer Tess Malone did her usual sterling job lighting the show. All should be commended by the showrunner.
Is there anything that could be improved? Well, the whole Australian accent thing left some audience members scratching their heads. If Justine Stillwell can’t do an Aussie accent the gag should be dropped. Instead, Director Hardie and Ms. Stillwell choose to paint it with broad strokes and make a bad accent a part of the deal. The dialect should go one way or the other.
For some reason, spring shows at Bainbridge Performing Arts suffer from low attendance. It was the case with the delightful “Drowsy Chaperone” a couple of years ago, and the crowd this past Saturday evening wasn’t great. That’s a shame because the cast of “Xanadu” deserves big crowds to go along with their big hair. It’s a good night with the theater that never fails to put on a good night at the theater. What is better than that…man! I mean, totally!
Xanadu,” by Douglas Carter Beane. Bainbridge Performing Arts, 200 Madson Ave. N, Bainbridge Island, 98110. Fri-Sat. 7:30, Sun. 3 pm through May 20. Tickets bainbridgeperformingarts.org/collections/bpa-presents. Info: bainbridgeperformingarts.org, or 206.842.8569.