Review: Lowered expectations help in Out Front’s ‘Xanadu’

Prepare for the worst, and perhaps “Xanadu” might not seem so bad. Perhaps. A moderate hit when it opened on Broadway in 2007, the musical has since generated something of a cult following, along the lines of “The Rocky Horror Show,” gauging by the enthusiastic response of the opening-night audience at Out Front Theatre’s current production.

From a critical perspective, however, the show’s derivation remains dubious at best. It’s based on an infamous 1980 movie debacle starring Olivia Newton-John (fresh off her success in “Grease”) as a mythological Greek muse who materializes in then-modern-day Venice Beach, California, to presumably “inspire” a struggling mortal artist with dreams of opening his very own — wait for it — roller disco. Ah, those were the days!

Theoretically motivated in the interest of campy, tongue-in-cheek fun, and heavy on the self-deprecating in-jokes, the stage version largely lives down to the screen flop that presumably “inspired” it, too. And it sure does contain an awful lot of talk about “artistic vision” and “creative inspiration” for a piece of musical-theater material that’s so sorely devoid of either.

The script is adapted by Douglas Carter Bean (“The Little Dog Laughed”), whose second act introduces additional nods to the 1981 film “Clash of the Titans,” involving the Mount Olympus characters of Zeus and several attending demi-goddesses. Not even the score is particularly original, primarily consisting instead of a dozen or so recycled ‘80s pop songs, roughly half composed by Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra fame), and the other half by John Farrar. Among the more familiar of them: “Magic,” “Evil Woman” and “Have You Never Been Mellow.”

Artistic director Paul Conroy’s economical Out Front staging relies on a canned instrumental track to supply the music, and that opening-night performance was also plagued by a number of technical glitches that may resolve themselves over time (faulty lighting cues, garbled and muffled acoustics). There’s a certain amateurish quality to the show that’s ultimately undermining —despite the absolutely fabulous costumes of Jay Reynolds, and a finale that’s essentially stolen by the biggest disco ball we’ll probably ever see.

In fact, Out Front’s “Xanadu” is a co-production with Georgia State University, and the last week of the run will feature a non-professional, all-student cast. As for the regular ensemble of nine actors, Anna Gonzalez is sweetly endearing as the main muse; her Australian accent is occasionally variable and/or unintelligible, but she sings (and roller-skates) well. Russell Scott is only marginal as the mortal love interest; several of his vocals were inaudible on opening night, but his “Suspended in Time” duet with Gonzalez is a lovely highlight among the songs.

Elsewhere, Arianna Hardaway smartly underplays her role as a villainous rival muse, at least as much as she can, given the show’s over-the-top tendencies. Poor Brandy Sexton, on the other hand, succumbs to them, wildly hamming it up as her sidekick. Also fine is Clint Clark-Duke as an avuncular real-estate magnate; “Whenever You’re Away from Me,” his own duet with Gonzalez, is another musical standout.

It’s really no fault of Conroy or his Out Front company that they’re working with source material as bad as “Xanadu” – – aside from choosing to go there in the first place, that is. Likewise, most savvy theatergoers will arrive knowing just what to expect, and they’ll basically get exactly what they’ve asked for. Skeptical critics, meanwhile, are on their own, to settle for whatever small or fleeting pleasures they can find, however few and far between.

THEATER REVIEW

“Xanadu”

Through Nov. 14. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays (excluding Nov. 7); 8 p.m. Monday (Nov. 1 only); 8 p.m. Wednesday (Nov. 10 only). $20-$30. Out Front Theatre, 999 Brady Ave. NW, Atlanta. 404-448-2755. www.outfronttheatre.com.

Bottom line: Highly campy and lowbrow, but not quite “so bad that it’s good,” as they say.