I promised myself – and you – that I’d try not to have too much of a stick up my ass when it came to reviewing this CD, which includes the musical highlights and key dialogue moments of the Broadway musical revival of 1980’s Olivia Newton-John vehicle Xanadu, which is perhaps best remembered for its own soundtrack than anything it accomplished on the big screen. So up front, let me acknowledge that listening to the cast recording album of a stage musical is perhaps not the best way to gauge the entire production in terms of narrative or artistic value. But even bearing that in mind, and admittedly biased by my affection for at least the musical part of the source material, the cast CD for Xanadu On Broadway gives me a view of the show as a mean-spirited train wreck.
And there’s really no need for it to be. There are some renditions of the songs from the movie here that are quite surprisingly good, from a musical standpoint. The actress/vocalist who’s stepping into Olivia Newton-John’s shoes for this production has the pipes to carry it off (which is actually quite a compliment – if you weren’t around in the late 1970s and early ’80s, I’m not sure you can appreciate how omnipresent Olivia Newton-John was in pop culture, with a string of hits and, of course, Grease to her name. And she could (and can still) sing. Anyone stepping into a role originated by that lady had better be able to bring something to the table in terms of singing. This production’s actress does an admirable job…at least where the singing’s concerned.
Where I start to get seriously disgruntled with Xanadu On Broadway is with the dialogue that points toward the show being not even remotely fond of its source material, but still trying to make a buck off of it. I understood, going in, that this was a satirical take on Xanadu the movie. Where I was taken aback was with the album’s dialogue scenes making it very clear that it isn’t a well-observed, fond-but-funny satire. Whoever wrote the script to this thing seems to be making not-at-all-kind sport of the source material. It’s almost as if the writer felt that the original movie had caused intense pain, and they now wanted to repay it with interest. Jabs are made at everything from ’80s fashion to the addition of an Australian actress in an otherwise American cast (the actress stepping into the character of Kira proclaims “And I’ll sport an Australian accent!” in a stereotypical mock-Aussie accent of her own). Someone had an axe – likely an entire arsenal of axes – to grind with Xanadu, and this seems to be the payback. It reminded me of some of the low points of post-Joel-Hodgson MST3K, when the show’s satirical sense of humor seemed prone to going much darker than what I’d grown accustomed to.
But…I’ll admit that I’m judging a whole production from a few select slices of recorded dialogue that are only on the album to give context to certain songs, and Xanadu On Broadway seems to be a bona fide hit on stage, so maybe I should stick to discussing the merits of the music itself. “All Over The World” and “Magic” are competent enough live renditions, though in the latter the lead actress is trying to push the Aussie accent schtick a bit too much; that’s the only thing preventing “Magic” from being the best song on here, because other than the exaggerated accent gag, it’s almost a dead ringer for the original.
“Evil Woman” not only never had anything to do with Xanadu, but it’s done in an extremely silly style, though it can be rather entertaining if you’re in the right mood. The duet “Suddenly”, originally sung by Olivia Newton-John and Cliff Richard, is another runner-up for best performance on the album, except that the Aussie gag again rears its head both here and in another duet, “Whenever You’re Away From Me”. I realize that I’m really criticizing a requirement of the script – the actress is just doing what the script says – but it has a ripple effect on the musical performances themselves, so it’s a bit difficult for me to just let it go.
The strangest number on the original movie soundtrack, “Dancin'”, was a jarring but entertaining collision between a ’40s Andrews Sisters-style song and modern rock (provided by the Tubes in the original recording); it’s my runaway favorite from Xanadu On Broadway by miles. It had to be a difficult enough song to record with its wildly divergent styles, and if they do it this well on stage, it’s easily the highlight of the show.
Another unrelated-to-Xanadu ELO chestnut is up next, “Strange Magic”, given the same silly reading (primarily by the same two characters – two sister muses of Kira’s, invented for the play, who scheme against her – who sing “Evil Woman”). “All Over The World” follows this, and it’s one of the better performances on the disc, even if some of the ’80s studio effects from the original ELO song are exaggerated for amusing effect. I was equally amused to hear the lyrics’ reference to Shard End – the Birmingham neighborhood where Jeff Lynne grew up – remained intact. It was already a musical non-sequitur, and now it’s preserved on stage night after night. “Don’t Walk Away” is quite different from the original, but so help me, I actually like the adaptation and the performance – it’s done so well that it’s the kind of thing that almost makes me want to see the show.
“Fool”, a song featured in the original movie but not its soundtrack, falls victim to the Aussie treatment again – a pity because the rest of it is almost spot-on. “The Fall”, which in its original incarnation is one of ELO’s most criminally underrated songs, is actually a nice adaptation and well performed. “Suspended In Time” wind up being the Newton-John song least affected by the accent gag, and it’s easily the best solo piece on this album. That’s chased down by what may be the strangest song on the whole disc, the Olivia Newton-John chestnut “Have You Never Been Mellow?”, which – like “Evil Woman” and “Strange Magic” – had nothing to do with Xanadu originally. Wrapping things up is an instrumentally listenable version of “Xanadu” itself, but again, the stereotypical Aussie accent just blows it for me. Seriously, did anyone even listen to the original songs here?
In the end, I’m giving Xanadu On Broadway a very charitable 2 out of 4 stars. If I had a little graphical button ready for 1 1/2 stars out of 4, I’d give it that instead. The thing is, there are a few performances in here that do, in fact, sound like a good way to take the original songs – whether those were done by ELO or ONJ – to the stage. There are others that I’d describe as train wrecks if I was feeling particularly kind. But by all means, take this review with a grain of salt – the music may all play out spectacularly against the set and costumes and choreography (I mean, who can resist roller disco?) But purely as a listening experience – and given the snippets of plot imparted by the included dialogue – I came away from listening to Xanadu On Broadway on CD feeling like it’s a lamentable misstep – lamentable because one plot point (the Australian accent gag) derailed some otherwise damned fine performances.
I’ve admitted that I’m no great fan of musicals, and perhaps too close to the source material, but then again, I loved most of Lynne Me Your Ears, an ELO/Jeff Lynne tribute which put some of Lynne’s music through some startling transformations. But those reinterpretations were done in a spirit of genuine admiration, not a snarlingly sarcastic parody. And that, perhaps more than any silly voice you’ll here hear, is what mars Xanadu On Broadway the most.
- I’m Alive (4:03)
- Magic (3:03)
- Evil Woman (2:41)
- Suddenly (3:38)
- Whenever You’re Away From Me (4:00)
- Dancin’ (2:28)
- Strange Magic (2:01)
- All Over The World (3:17)
- Don’t Walk Away (3:38)
- Fool (1:27)
- The Fall (2:02)
- Suspended In Time (2:56)
- Have You Never Been Mellow? (3:24)
- Xanadu (4:23)
Released by: P.S. Classics
Release date: 2008
Total running time: 43:01