Christie Whelan in Xanadu | Docklands, Melbourne

I’d had some bubbly, alright.

And was in rollicking company. Dear friends.

And I was a little starstruck. Molly’s hat was there. Together with Molly. Tottie frocked up. ONJ, naturally. (Olivia…? Newton-John…?) She started it all, for her sins. Andrew Bolt, by golly. Andrew Bolt!

And there’s something a little magical about a big top. The Grand Xanadu Marquee, that is. Even if you have to trek to Melbourne’s desolate boondocks — a Docklands car park — to find it. Cirque du Soleil helped here. About 2000 are seated in air-conditioned comfort, with a pretty intimate view of the stage. (The stage could have been higher for those of us on the floor.)

And the staging is clever. Incandescently gaudy, sure. The set — like an Athenian theme restaurant — features some dazzling bells and whistles. There are audience members seated on stage and performers bounding about the audience. You’re a part of this, whether you like it or not.

And the music, much of it, transcends the forgettable era it came from. These are good tunes not merely in reminiscence. I mean, you’ve haven’t been able to get Xanadu out of your head since Olivia first sang it on the silver screen in 1980. Give them that. Strange Magic is still a great song, right? Evil Woman, too. Suddenly is sweetly fun. That’s Jeff Lynne — of ELO fame — getting fat on the royalties, with Olivia’s long-time collaborator John Farrar penning new tunes. The live band never skips a beat.

And the cast, giddy with enthusiasm, win you over. Sam Ludeman, as leading man Sonny, is harmlessly charming with a strong set of pipes. In the role Gene Kelly isn’t ever remembered for, John McTernan is perfectly cast as the forever-young entrepreneur Danny. The gaggle of Greek muses are all terrific; Susan-Ann Walker, in particular, is a scene-stealing riot. It’s a tightly-rehersed 14-strong ensemble of fresh musical talent.

And that Christie Whelan is really something, isn’t she? A better singer than ONJ, certainly, and at least as beguiling. Local audiences saw her last year in Melbourne Theatre Company’s entrancing The Drowsy Chaperone and The Production Company’s jolly Sugar, but here as the Xanadu Queen she comes into her own as a leading lady of the Australian stage. It’s almost a shame she’s stuck in this damned tent touring the country for the next 12 months.

And somehow it all works in spite of itself. Christopher Ashley — who directed the original, Tony-nominated Broadway run and conceived this tented version — has designed a breakneck 90-minute spectacle almost impossible not to be swept up in. He deserves much of the credit. Along with Douglas Carter Beane — a playwright of deft comedic skill; his Hollywood satire The Little Dog Laughed (Queensland Theatre Company featured a production last year) was ripe — who has penned a subtly yet subversively funny script that mocks and adores the original film in exact measure.

And so it’s much better than the movie, if that’s what you’re worried about. Entirely irresistible, in fact. There, I said it.

But seriously…

The story of a beautiful Greek muse who lays on an Aussie accent and descends from the heavens to a California beach to inspire a struggling artist to achieve his dream of creating a roller disco?

What a stupid, stupid show.

Curtain Call rating: B+

The details: The Xanadu big top is at Docklands in Melbourne — tickets through Ticketek. The show travels to Sydney in May and to Brisbane in August. Other cities are regional centres will follow.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.