Let the good times roll
A 1980s-era roller-disco fantasy skates and shimmies on the CF stage April 13-16.
Kelli Piel as Kira, front left, and Jackson Reed as Sonny Malone, front right, rehearse a scene from Xanadu with other cast members at the Dassance Fine Arts Center at the College of Central Florida in Ocala on Tuesday, April 4, 2023. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2023.
The College of Central Florida’s theater department is more than skating by with its spring semester production of “Xanadu.”
Written by Tony-winning playwright Douglas Carter Beane, the time-bending roller-disco spectacle careened onto Broadway around 15 years ago with some cheeky tweaks to the film’s dialogue.
The 2007 theatrical redux takes things up a notch. It’s what CF theater instructor/director Nonalee Davis calls a “spoof” of the so-bad-it’s-good fantasy film starring Olivia Newton-John. The revamped musical reprises the film’s beloved soundtrack. Tunes include “Magic” by Newton-John, “I’m Alive” and “Evil Woman” by ELO, and the shimmering titular earworm, “Xanadu,” which features her and the band. (Yes, it will be stuck in your head for days. You’re welcome.)
“I grew up listening to Olivia Newton-John, and I’m a huge fan,” Davis shared during a dress rehearsal of the production. “So, for me, the songs on the soundtrack that I remember appearing on the Billboard charts, like ‘Suddenly’ (by Newton-John), are some of my childhood favorites.
The show also features, more prominently than in the film, characters from Greek mythology.
“I love the muses and sirens,” Davis said. “They are a fun twist, and they don’t have speaking roles in the movie. Plus, our production is loaded with Easter eggs!”
Davis was referring to the show’s playful visual tributes to Newton-John, the movie “Xanadu” and other 1980s-era/historical tidbits.
Indeed, the play’s script is often funnier and more clever than the film, and Davis extended the cast from eight to 27 in the almost entirely student-run production.
The musical’s ridiculously entertaining narrative transcends time and place with flashbacks to the 1940s and time-traveling mythological heroes of ancient Greece.
Its story follows Kira (Kelli Piel), a Greek muse cursed to fall in love with a mortal, and Sonny (Jackson Reed), a painter by trade, who dreams of owning his own fabulous roller disco.
Danny Maguire (Collin Williams), owner of the building where Sonny would construct his rink/discotheque, takes the couple back in time to his 1940s heyday with a music-and-dance number that recalls Gene Kelly’s final performance in the 1980 film.
With all the time travel in “Xanadu,” you can expect to see costumes from multiple time periods, from togas to A-line skirts to headbands and legwarmers. Costume designers Veronica McGrath and Melrose Root grace the cast’s getups with neon and rainbow colors and many other fun flourishes.
Also, the students are getting quite a historical and literary education through “Xanadu” as the inspirations behind the script go back a millennium.
The 1980 movie is based on another film, “Down to Earth,” a 1947 comedy starring Rita Hayworth — a sequel to the 1941 film “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” which happens to be based on the 1938 play “Heaven Can Wait” (remade into a 1978 hit movie starring Warren Beatty).
With verse referenced in the script, the city of “Xanadu” famously appeared in “Kubla Khan,” a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who conjured a royal “pleasure dome” in a drug-induced dream (Coleridge suffered from chronic pain). The poem’s paradoxically sunny ice palace floated on air and gave artistic birth to the show’s dream-come-true roller disco.
Fun fact: Poet Coleridge dreamt up the fantastical abode after reading a historical tome by Samuel Purchas, whose text referenced Marco Polo’s description of Khan’s empirical home, a portable structure constructed with gilded and lacquered cane or bamboo.
So, from port-a-palace to roller disco, “Xanadu” represents artistic creation defying the odds.
Its script repeatedly mentions dreams; a theme that reflects the aspirations of its student cast — but with neon and glitter.
Indeed, leads Piel and Reed are rolling on a steady path to a hopeful future.
“It’s such an awesome experience, and this is my first musical,” said Piel, 21, who’s also a music education major and vocalist in CF’s Patriot Singers. “Music is my passion, so I’ve enjoyed getting to sing and dance and act,” she said, adding that she plans to transfer to the University of Central Florida.
She, like many others in the cast, is on roller skates throughout the show, except for the finale, when she wears white furry leg warmers with multicolor lights.
Reed, 20, works as a videographer after school and also plans to transfer to UCF. The liberal arts major is taking acting classes and is on track to be a film major.
So, we might see in Reed another Robert Redford—both in front of and behind the camera.
Talk about a dream come true!
“Xanadu” performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 13-15, and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 16, at the Dassance Fine Arts Center, 3001 S.W. College Road, Ocala. Tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for non-CF students and can be purchased by calling (352) 873-5810. For more information, visit CF.edu/VPAEvents.