Death on Wheels

Xanadu was a career-ender for nearly everyone who starred in it -- which is why it makes great live theater

Strange things happen in Collinsville, Illinois. Desperate cigar-chomping characters pack the racetrack. Grownups in Klingon costumes pad down the halls of Archon, the annual sci-fi convention at the Gateway Center. There's a horseradish festival at which men take swings at golf balls carved from the potent root. Don't forget the 70-foot ketchup bottle and, of course, the nude dancers squirting themselves with fluorescent body paint in area clubs.

Things on the East Side just got even stranger. A group of Los Angeles producers is bringing the stage version of Xanadu, the 1980 roller-skating movie-musical flop, to the Miners' Theater.

Why? Because it's funny. That's what producer/director Michael Clarkston, a Fairview Heights native, learned when he helmed a sold-out six-week run in LA last year.

Now we are in Xanadu.
Now we are in Xanadu.

Details

8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday, September 26-29 and October 3-6. Call 618-806-9234 for tickets, priced at $12, proceeds from which will fund breast-cancer and AIDS research.
Miners’ Theater, 204 West Main Street in Collinsville

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"It's not to be taken seriously when you come see it," Clarkston says. "It's done very campy. It's a parody of the movie. Its one of those nights of theater where, hopefully, we make you laugh for an hour-and-a-half."

When Xanadu went from screen to stage, says Clarkston, it kept virtually the same dialogue and much of the same choreography. When you see the live version, you'll remember what was so funny about the movie in the first place. The plot is pure fluff: Olivia Newton-John plays a Greek Muse who emerges from a wall mural to fulfill the ambiguous dreams of a doddering millionaire, played by Gene Kelly, and a frustrated painter. The point, of course, is not the plot but the dancing, singing and roller-skating, and the rock & roll soundtrack.

Xanadu was released on the heels of 1979's Roller Boogie, another worthless film that tried to capitalize on the roller-skating fad. But Xanadu was extra-bad -- it, too, gave viewers the feathered hairstyles, spandex and disco we craved back then, but the wooden acting, the cheesy neon-light-simulating special effects, and the presence of Newton-John, the eminently mockable Aussie Sandra Dee, added up to a bomb. Gene Kelly's film career was not revived -- it hit a brick wall at high speed. The Muse's love interest, Michael Beck, had just played the leading man in underground sci-fi flick The Warriors the year before. After Xanadu, his career stalled -- permanently. Newton-John, fresh from the smash-hit film version of Grease, would never recover. Now, but for the expected virulent following among a minuscule gay subcult, she's a punchline. The curse was complete.

Last October, Caroline in the City actress Amy Pietz bankrolled the musical revival, and Angelenos laughed heartily; a year later, her co-writer Clarkston is bringing the debacle to his hometown. Audience members will enjoy the onstage roller-skating, the 150 costume changes for a cast of 35 and the sweaty, high-impact dancing. Folks will look at each other in recognition when they hear Newton-John's hit "Magic" and her slow-dance-at-the-prom-song "Suddenly." Don't forget those tunes by ELO and the Tubes, too.

How do you explain the enduring fandom for this steaming pile of film crap from twenty years ago? One contributor to the Internet Movie Database Web site has the answer: "Tube socks with matching visors."

 
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