21 October 2010

Our dreams of Xanadu

Put up a roller disco, love someone and create art—said in one breath, you’ll dismiss the thought as silly; but who has not, at least once in their life, taken a silly thought seriously?

Artist Sonny Malone, extremely dissatisfied with his chalk mural in Los Angeles, decides to commit suicide. Upon seeing him, the Greek muse Clio talks her sisters into helping Sonny out of his artistic depression. It is against Zeus’s rules for demigods to reveal who they are to mortals, so Clio descends to Earth and blends in with the humans by naming herself Kira, sporting an Australian accent and going about in roller skates.

Clio successfully turns Sonny’s disposition around and Sonny is now determined to pursue his greatest dream: combine all the arts and add something athletic. He will build a roller disco. They find Xanadu, an abandoned theater owned by Danny Maguire who is a former musician and now a grumpy tycoon who can’t be convinced to sell the building for the arts.

Clio then aids Sonny in acquiring the theater and fulfilling his dream. In the process, the demigod falls in love with the mortal—another transgression against the laws of Zeus.

If the foregoing plot points seem a bit out-there, it’s probably because they are. At the heart of the musical Xanadu (book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar) is the disillusioned artist who trades his life and art for death—whether by suicide or by submission to the more useful pursuit. The theme is so trite that one way to deal with it is by making fun of it, which is what the musical does. It pokes fun at the movie musical flop of the same title starring Olivia Newton-John and the time’s cultural faults (“The muses are in retreat. Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theater? They’ll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter’s catalog, throw it on stage and call it a show”). It pokes fun at love (“Oh there are many reasons why mortals fall in love. For some, it is lust. For others, it is companionship. For a few in the San Fernando Valley, it is simply because the other one has air conditioning. But we shall make them fall in love in the most lethal way. We shall make them complete one another”). It also pokes fun at itself (“This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people!”).

Atlantis Productions’ staging of Xanadu

Atlantis Productions, which in the past brought to Metro Manila major musical hits like Avenue Q and Spring Awakening, staged Xanadu last September (and will stage it again in November) at the Carlos Romulo Auditorium in RCBC Plaza, Makati. Ticket prices range from Php400 to Php1,500. You will not miss much from the balcony seats, since the theater is somewhat small, though the railing causes viewing discomfort.

Rachel Alejandro played the role of Clio. For a pretty character with long blonde hair, donning a bright pink skimpy outfit, she was endearing rather than annoying. She was the most hilarious with her highly affected Australian accent, and her ease with the roller skates is noteworthy as well.

Felix Rivera as Sonny Malone in contrast was an awkward case. Sonny was portrayed as someone dumb and it sometimes worked in making a scene hysterical. It seemed like they wanted the audience to laugh at him, but the problem with witnessing dumbness is that while one might find it funny, another might be peeved. And it was difficult to completely buy an artist who lacked that much sharpness and grace, even if we were watching a parody. Instead of a caricature of a clueless artist, we simply got a clueless artist.

The weak distortion of types and themes can be said about the rest of the characters and narrative. For a show that wanted to be crazy, it wasn’t crazy enough. There were moments of pure hilarity and there were dragging ones. Some songs were catchy and some were forgettable. At times it was as if you were watching the Sunday noontime variety show—it was doing enough to keep you entertained, but not enough to keep you elated.

The set design was not as splashy as the spirit of the 80′s. The stage was almost bare except for the ramp, the columns, and the audience members seated at the back.

The 90-minute show unravelled a simple plot. In fact when it started, you would know right away that everything would turn out fine in the end. And it didn’t matter how they’d get to the end. Apparently what was most important for the musical was being self-aware in its silliness and throwing clever jabs at art and culture.

Our own pleasure-dome

Zeus explains that Xanadu is “a gift so grand that no one knows what it truly is”. It must be our greatest dream, and that dream being ours, we must know what it is, only we are afraid to acknowledge and pursue it.

On the one hand, we have a story of forbidden love and artistic ambitions, and on the other, we have dialogues and scenes that do not take love and art seriously. The main story is incidental and a mere channel for witty remarks and comical acts. The musical’s unclear tone takes away its chance to drive a point home or set a springboard for rumination and go beyond referencing for the sake of referencing. One can’t help but ask, what is there after the laughter?

When Zeus discloses that to love someone and create art is the gift of Xanadu, we take the words in without neither believing nor rejecting it. We are not sure if they are mocking or championing the idealism.

We can agree the Xanadu has a happy ending, if by happy we mean the love forbidden is now permitted and the wild ambition is now achieved. But the conviction that everything can be wonderful as well for the audience is missing.

Ultimately our greatest dreams are the biggest clichés. Love, home, success, wealth, prominence. To some of us, our dreams are serious matters until we learn life has other plans for us. Whether we are still madly chasing it or exchanging it for the next best thing is up to us to admit or deny. My greatest dream is to love someone and create art—not many dare say it aloud these days.

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