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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Record Reviews > Xanadu - Original Broadway Cast Recording

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Xanadu - The Original Broadway Cast Recording CD

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Original Broadway Cast Recording – Xanadu (PS Classics) 

I have to admit that I am much more familiar the 1980 camp-classic film Xanadu than any adult heterosexual man ever should be.  In the interest of full disclosure, when I was young, Olivia Newton-John was my first real celebrity crush.  And, frankly, at the time of Xanadu, Newton-John was at her most spectacularly attractive.  Therefore I have seen Xanadu probably dozens of times – though it is sort of a love/hate relationship. 

Intellectually, I know it is a horrible movie.  Just the concept – one of the mythical muse daughters of Zeus (Newton-John) comes down from Mount Olympus to Santa Monica to inspire a struggling painter (Michael Beck) and an aging former jazz player (Gene Kelly) to open a roller disco – should give you an idea why the film has received such delicious scorn. 

It is pretty much sacrilege that this was the final film role of legendary song and dance man Kelly (Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris, On the Town).  It essentially scuttled the promising career of young actor Beck, who had an impressive break-out role just the year before in the low-budget thriller The Warriors.  It also dealt a pretty extreme blow to Newton-John’s acting side-gig after her smash hit version of Grease – though that was not completely derailed until the badly-conceived romantic comedy Two of a Kind four years later – her reunion with Grease co-star John Travolta. 

Yet, some deep-down part of me, despite realizing its cheesiness, loves Xanadu. 

In modern Broadway – where it is nearly impossible to sell a completely new or serious musical – this kind of cockeyed nostalgia has become a staple.  From Mamma Mia to Footloose to countless others, ironically detached and whimsical has pretty much replaced legitimate singing and storytelling. 

Here, unfortunately is the one real problem with the Original Cast Album of Xanadu.  Everything about the film deserves the smirking post-modern scorn that is heaped on it by the play – with one exception: the music. 

After all, the soundtrack album was broken into two sides of music featuring arguably two of the biggest acts in popular music at the time Newton-John and the Electric Light Orchestra.  It spawned five smash hit singles – the title track, “Magic,” “Suddenly,” “All Over the World” and “I’m Alive.”  Some of the non-hit songs on the album were even better than the better known ones – specifically Newton-John’s show-stopping love song “Suspended in Time” and ELO’s mournful “The Fall.” 

Besides, you have to be impressed by any album which would team Newton-John up for duets with legendary hoofer Kelly, arena-rock supergroup ELO, the then-resurgent former Brit teen idol Cliff Richard and the edgy-and-not-quite-popular-yet pop/punk group The Tubes.  The music director has to have been some sort of imaginative surreal genius. 

Add to this the fact that the Broadway Xanadu soundtrack also mines into ELO and Newton-John’s back catalogues for other strong, well-known songs (“Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” for ELO and “Have You Never Been Mellow” for ON-J) that have nothing to do with the movie.  In fact two of those were essentially already golden oldies at the time the film was made. 

Therefore, just listening to it as a CD, with all the funny and affected vocals – while they may be perfectly acceptable on stage – skirts from amusing to obvious to exasperating. 

Take, for example, the standout love ballad “Suddenly.”  While male lead Cheyenne Jackson plays it mostly straight, female lead Kerry Butler flitters back and forth from exaggeratedly breathy to an oddly-nasal Brooklyn accent to an obviously-bad fake Australian accent to a normal and very pleasant straight-forward vocal.  I don’t point this out to denigrate Butler’s performance.  I have no doubt that on stage it is exactly what the book calls for.  However, it kind of ruins the listening experience.  Then, if this isn’t distracting enough, the song is stopped occasionally for the actors to do short snippets of dialogue. 

Almost all of the songs are here – most of them played relatively straightforwardly and essentially well-sung.  Particularly interesting are the soulful re-imaginings of “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic.”  Yet all-too-often you have the same dismayed reaction to the theatricality of the comic performances.  These songs are too good to be mocked so mercilessly. 

Xanadu – The Original Broadway Cast Album really does make me want to see the musical, so I guess it is achieving its main objective.  The play sounds like it will be a hoot.  However, next time I have the urge to hear these songs, I’m much more likely to dig out the old movie soundtrack album.  (1/08)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright © 2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 11, 2008.

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Copyright © 2008 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 11, 2008.