Notes From The Studio / Xanadu’ at the Waterfront Drama on Wheels
“Xanadu” was a terrible movie – a bloated, high concept/low execution, incoherent train wreck, produced by people whose cultural judgment told them that roller disco was here to stay. The movie was bad enough to mortally wound the film career of Olivia Newton-John, who seemed so unstoppable after “Grease.” Some say it killed the American movie musical.
It was also the last movie Gene Kelly ever made.
Once, around the time the movie came out, my father and I were in a Burger King and he accidentally poured Sweet’N Low on the french fries, then convinced me to eat one. Whenever I catch a snippet of the movie, it reminds me of that taste.
But “Xanadu” did have some catchy songs. It may also represent the high water mark for roller disco in the American zeitgeist. (Some may argue the two-part “CHiPs Go Roller Disco” episode, which aired three month before the movie’s premiere, deserves that title.)
Time may not always cure the lame, but sometimes it remodels the lame into quality camp.
It seemed dubious when “Xanadu” was turned into a Broadway musical in 2007, but it ran for more than 500 shows. The hard-hearted Charles Isherwood of the New York Times called it “silly bliss.” Hilton Als at the New Yorker called it “ridiculously brilliant.” The show was nominated for four Tony Awards and six Drama Desk Awards, and won a Drama Desk for “Outstanding Book of a Musical.”
By all accounts the smartest move Douglas Carter Beane made when he wrote the book for the show was to jettison most of the original’s script and the plot, but keep the songs and the skates. He also merged the plot of the “Xanadu” movie with that of “Clash of the Titans.” He added Newton-John’s early hit “Have You Never Been Mellow” and a few ELO songs. And he embraced the awfulness of the celluloid original as a way to move beyond that awfulness in the theatrical reboot. It was a second-wave jukebox musical – “Mama Mia,” but with a different set of embarrassingly likable songs, leg warmers and roller skates.
I keep coming back to the roller skates.
Largely this is because the Waterfront Playhouse is staging a production of “Xanadu” that premiered on March 4 and runs through March 29. And the Waterfront Playhouse stage, while big for Key West, is small for everywhere else.
I watched some rehearsals the other day. Now that the set has been built, there is essentially a 40-foot orange slice of skate-able area. And the long end of the orange slice is bordered by an un-barricaded, three-foot drop into the audience.
Good theater usually involves risk. Rarely does that risk translate into physical peril on polyurethane wheels.
Initially, ramps were built into the set. But in early rehearsals on the stage, necks were nearly broken and the ramps were removed.
There are nine cast members in the play, eight of whom skate.
The one cast member who does not skate is Vicki Roush – because she is Vicki Roush and Vicki Roush does not have to skate. Looking up from her script, Ms. Roush said, “Even Lloyds of London wouldn’t insure that.”
Skating has its own shadow set of choreography – swizzles, downtowns, spins, and rolling arabesques. Also, there is something in the show that may or may not be called “Shooting the Duck.”
Figuring out the blocking and timing involves thinking three moves ahead, sort of like in a game of pool, only in this case, a game of pool with nine sentient pool balls who are subject not only to gravity and momentum, but also to free will and subjective judgment, as well as and the potential to be described in overly extended metaphors.
Penny Leto is choreographer, but Christa Hunt (known as Tatah DuJour in burlesque world) choreographed the skating scenes.
The play was cast in May.
“I just asked if they could roller skate on the form, and everyone said yes. Whether they could or not,” said Danny Weathers, who is directing.
Skating rehearsals were held almost immediately, initially at the roller hockey rink on Bertha Street, but later on the third floor of the former Masonic temple/future Studios of Key West, at the intersection of Eaton and Simonton.
Kara Krichman and Brian Hall, who play Kira and Sonny, the romantic leads, were imported from Edison, N.J., where they starred together in a previous production of the show.
Despite my repeated prodding, everyone was non-plussed by the craziness of so many people skating in so little space.
“What it’s given us is trust. It’s always in your head that you could fall, but you can’t have that on your face,” said Hall. “One of the first things we learned was how to fall, and how to just turn that into another move.”
Krichman just shrugged it off, saying she liked the challenge of translating traditional musical theater choreography into skating moves. Also, she added, “It gives you the craziest leg muscles.”
Tom Luna, who will play Zeus, is not as experienced on skates as the Jersey leads. But he is no rube at the roller disco rodeo, either. He first skated onstage 25 years ago at the Waterfront in the “Key West Classics.” Fifteen years ago he skated, while playing an accordion, in “Pageant” at the Red Barn.
Luna pointed out that he turned 60 last year.
“If I don’t break a hip, I’ll be okay in this show,” he said.
It looks to be a fun show. Roller Disco will never die!