When The Big Book of Really Awful Movies is written, the chapter for the letter X will likely have but one entry: Xanadu, the 1980 musical starring Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly. It's a about a starving young artist (Sonny) who enlists the help of a character out of Greek mythology (a willowy muse named Kira) to realize his dream of opening a roller disco.
That’s right, a roller disco.
Xanadu would be the last film appearance for Kelly, who played dapper Danny, a business partner in the club. Newton-John lost virtually all of her Grease momentum with Xanadu, her second movie, but went on to score the biggest hit of her recording career with "Physical" in 1981; Jeff Lynne, who disbanded his Electric Light Orchestra shortly after the film (which featured his music and production) tanked, was still a few years away from the Traveling Wilburys.
And Michael Beck, who played the hapless skating schmo Sonny, faded into obscurity. He was last heard from reading the works of John Grisham for audiobooks.
Over the years, however, Xanadu began to acquire a following. In the “it’s so bad, it’s great” tradition of movies made by Ed Wood, or starring William Shatner, this big-budget turkey turned over in its roasting pan.
Re-tooled into a campy Broadway show in 2007, Xanadu was suddenly a hit, thanks in no small part to Lynne’s original songs (“I’m Alive,” “All Over the World,” “Xanadu”), and the addition of a few extras like ELO’s “Evil Woman” and Newton-John’s “Have You Never Been Mellow.”
Before anyone could say Mamma Mia!, the new/old show was nominated for a batch of Tonys, and went out on a successful national tour. And now Xanadu has been 100 percent re-assessed.
“I think the success comes with how they’ve written the Broadway show,” says Richie Cook, who’s directing the teens of St. Andrew’s School in a production of Xanadu. “They wrote it for fans of the movie; it really parodies the movie. It makes fun of how ridiculous the movie is. All the way throughout.”
Indeed, Cook’s young actor/singers are costumed to look like they just came out of the 1980s. And every member of the 17-member cast learned to roller skate.
Cook, chair of Fine Arts at St. Andrew’s, is counting on a certain nostalgic appeal.
“It’s really a childish movie,” he notes. “Kids love it. Adults see through it, and make fun of it. But if you were a kid in 1980, and you enjoyed it, and you’re an adult now coming to see this show, you will find it hilarious to see how ridiculous the movie was.”
The roles of the Muses—Kira’s eight sisters—have been expanded for the stage version. Now they’re literally a Greek chorus, commenting on (and interfering with) the storyline.
Presented in the school’s auditorium, which also serves as its cafeteria, Xanadu is the first St. Andrew’s show to spill off the stage into the rest of the space. “All the kids skate at the end,” Cook smiles. “The whole cafeteria turns into a skating rink, so they do a figure-eight around the salad bar, and out through the hallway.”
Pianist Warren Heilman leads the four-piece band.
St. Andrew’s doesn’t have a dance curriculum, so Cook knew he had his hands full with Xanadu, which is all-singing, all-skating, all-dancing. “We pushed the bar on that as much as we could,” he says.
“And at first, they looked at a roller skate like it was a telegraph. It was like ‘What are these things?’ But everybody went out and bought roller skates, and now they love it.”
Where: St. Andrew's School, 601 Penn Waller Road (Wilmington Island)
When: At 7 p.m. May 1-3, and 3 p.m. May 4
Tickets: $15 adults, $10 students
Reservations: (912) 897-4941