Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Stray Dog Theatre
Review by Richard T. Green

Scott Degitz-Fries, Phil Leveling,
Shannon Lampkin Campbell and Cast

Photo by John Lamb
Twenty-seven years after the lavish but critically panned movie Xanadu came out in 1980, a live stage musical adaptation boogied onto Broadway in 2007, creating its own semi-ironic sensation. That live musical was rewritten from the original screenplay (by Richard Danus and Mark Rubel) for the stage by Douglas Carter Beane. It debuted at the Helen Hayes Theatre, and–improbable though it may seem–went on to run for over 500 performances. Flash-forward to 2024, and it has found a perfect temporary home in St. Louis at Stray Dog Theatre at the Tower Grove Abbey, directed by the splendid Justin Been. And, with choreographer Mike Hodges, it all works on wheels.

Xanadu (the musical) actually makes more sense than Xanadu (the movie). Not to mention, the production has a perfect dance-club look: a mountain of white fabric and plenty of room to roll around, but with a sprinkling of dark, fang-like hollows here and there, like almost any good dance hall you've ever been to. Needless to say, to anyone who remembers their disco years, the show is full of lush, heartwarming songs, all enhanced by impeccable music direction by Leah Schultz. And there are late-1970s day-glo costumes and great legendary headpieces once we get to Mt. Olympus, all designed by Colleen Michelson.

With all the boomer nostalgia exploding around us here, there is a danger the musical might begin to resemble something as syrupy as the old "Lawrence Welk Show." But not to worry: This Xanadu stays right up to date with lots of great devious humor.

I guess I should say maybe it makes more sense than the film. Or maybe it's just harder to argue with a stage full of overpowering singing and dancing comic actors on roller skates. It's put forth as parody instead of the spangly, flowy, glowy Busby Berkley-style tribute we got in the original film. The movie managed to feel both nonsensical and almost intentionally palliative, when I saw it at a nearly empty Brentwood Theater one Saturday afternoon here in 1980, after the tumultuous events of the sixties and seventies. Nowadays, a lengthy dance montage from the film sometimes gets played on the screens overhead at show tunes nights at gay bars. It's a celebration of very soft glam-rock.

But, remade for 2007 and boasting a stage full of roller-skating Greek muses, Xanadu weaves an unexpectedly magical spell for a baby boomer like me. Which perhaps reaffirms the sheer Lawrence Welkishness of it all.

For this newer version, librettist Beane added a Disney-esque cartoon villain and sidekick to sharpen the story. The familiar disco score was written by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar. Taken all together, it's a spangled and streamered plastic grocery bag of a show: billowing up through the air, somehow never once getting snagged in a metaphorical treetop during its brisk two hour run-time.

The subtly ironic Shannon Lampkin Campbell sings beautifully and easily carries the show as the film's Olivia Newton-John character, the muse Clio, come down to earth from Mt. Olympus, seemingly by way of Melbourne, Australia. Opposite her is the impenetrable lunkhead Sonny Malone, a street artist played (totally against type) by the brainy showman Phil Leveling. Together they dream of converting an abandoned ballroom into a Studio 54-type disco in downtown Los Angeles.

Bewigged here, the consummate performer Mr. Leveling unexpectedly adopts the look and attitude of Dick Shawn in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Or, Dick Shawn in the original version of The Producers, take your pick. It doesn't give him a lot of latitude in terms of characterization. But thanks to his own comic timing, and Mr. Beane's jokes, under Mr. Been's direction it all works out just great.

Chelsea Johnston is flat-out excellent as the villainous muse Melpomene, who conspires to destroy Clio with the help of another comical sister, Calliope (played by the born-in-a-trunk Sara Gene Dowling, who also designed the production's hair and makeup). Scott Degitz-Fries is perfect as Danny Maguire, the owner of the abandoned ballroom. He manages to layer-in some actual humanity into his role, though it seems almost subversive in a show like this. He also serves as the Xanadu's "skate consultant" and has a couple of nice big band era flashbacks with Clio. Later, Mr. Degitz-Fries appears as Zeus in the final scenes.

Songs include "Suddenly," "Have You Never Been Mellow," and of course the title song, which actually gave me the chills when I finally got to hear it live. "All Over The World" is another exuberant high point. The cast is very solid, including recent Stray Dog leading man Drew Mizell (as Terpsicore), the wonderful Katie Orr (as Erato), and the always-top-notch Lindsey Grojean (as Euterpe). Mateo Bluemel is precision-minded (and funny) as Thalia, in a cast that's highly intelligent and reliable, and also includes Laura Tenenbaum and Madison Mesiti.

In its current revival at one of the most respected theatre companies in town, it's an iridescent post-'70s bubble that seems to float over a hedge of our own thorny cynicism, just daring to be popped. Mindful of the fragility of it all, I twice skirted Artistic Director Gary Bell in the lobby on opening night, to avoid chatting. Because I was absolutely not sure if the weird, fun atmosphere of it all could be sustained until the final scenes.

But the show floats gently out of sight at the end, taking with it its own delirious disco, back up to the sky.

Xanadu runs through April 27, 2024, at Stray Dog Theatre, Tower Grove East Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For tickets and information, please visit

Clio/Kira: Shannon Lampkin Campbell
Sonny Malone: Phil Leveling
Danny Maguire/Zeus: Scott Degitz-Fries
Melponmene/Medusa: Chelsie Johnston
Calliope/Aphrodite: Sarah Gene Dowling
Erato/Aglaope/Andrews Sister/Eros: Katie Orr
Terpsicore/Theixiepeia/Young Danny Maguire/The Tubes/Cyclops: Drew Mizell
Euterpe/Pelsonoe/Andrew Sister: Lauren Tenenbaum
Thalia/Molpe/The Tubes/Hermes/Satyr: Mateo Bluemel
Hera: Madison Mesiti
Young Woman with Bicycle/Thetis: Lindsay Grojean

Stray Dog Band
Music Director, Keyboard 1: Leah Schultz
Keyboard 2: Randon Lane
Guitar: Adam Rugo
Percussion: Joe Winters

Production Staff
Director: Justin Been
Choreographer: Mike Hodges
Costume Designer: Colleen Michelson
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Scenic Designer: Justin Been
Hair and Makeup: Sara Gene Dowling
Skate Consultation: Scott Degitz-Fries