XANADU Lives Again, in Asbury Park

Alyse Alan Louis and Ralph Meitzler head the cast, when XANADU skates into the stately pleasuredome of Asbury Park’s Carousel House as the season opener for ReVision Theatre.

As a youngster growing up in the Midwest during the late 20th century, David Leidholdt sensed that he was…different from the rest.

Forced to hide who he really was in the halls of high school; adrift and alone in an age before social networks, David dreamed of an escape to a place far away from the acrid smoke of burning hate; a “stately pleasuredome” illuminated with a thousand points of revolving, reflected light — a Xanadu.

Yes, David Leidholdt was a “Disco Boy in Detroit Rock City.” But here in 2011, as one of the producing partners of ReVision Theatre Company, Disco Boy has become the Disco Man — and Disco Man has decreed that Xanadu the musical herald the coming of a new season of entertainments on the herringboned hardwoods of the Asbury Park boardwalk, with the Carousel House the pleasuredome of choice.

No doubt you’re familiar, at least vaguely, with Xanadu the 1980 film — a notorious box-office Butterball in which Olivia Newton-John essayed the part of Kira, a mythological Muse (daughter of Greek deity Zeus) who comes down to Carter-administration Earth to help a young artist achieve his life’s dream — opening a roller disco.

Suffice to say that the film pretty much arrested any movie momentum the Aussie songbird had generated with Grease — in addition to chasing the director back to the realm of political documentaries, putting the final nail in the celluloid coffin of Gene Kelly, and strangling the leading man’s career cold in the cradle. What the film did have going for it was a bonafide hit score of candylicious pop songs (by Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra fame) — as well as a small but exponentially snowballing base of fans for whom Xanadu was the stuff of inspiration.

Those songs and that fanbase laid the foundation for the 2007 stage musical, a campy confection that added a bad-Muse subplot and fortified the soundtrack with songs made previously famous by ELO (“Evil Woman,” “Strange Magic”) and ON-J (“Have You Never Been Mellow”). Beginning Thursday, July 7, the show makes its New Jersey premiere inside the rococo roundhouse of the Carousel, with the quad skates hitting the stage of a building that once did duty as an indoor skate park and punk rock hall.

Of course, in Asbury Park the name Xanadu carries echoes of the long-defunct circuit dance club Club Xanadu that occupied the corner of Second and Kingsley for most of the 1980s — and for folks all over NJ, the once-proud name of Kubla Khan‘s summer palace has come back to bite us in the form of that on again/ off again Mall-of-America monstrosity at the side of the Turnpike.

Leidholdt directs an Equity cast that includes Ralph Meitzler (Broadway’s Rock of Ages), Lindsay Nicole Chambers (B’way’s Legally Blond and Hairspray) Alyse Alan Louis (Mamma Mia!), Thay Floyd, Bernard Dotson (Finian’s Rainbow, Ragtime) and Billy Lewis (Spring Awakening national tour). The director found some moments to talk with us during that first, slip-and-slide week of rehearsals; flip the pixelated page for more.

Elena Ricardo is down (but undaunted) during rehearsals for the ReVision Theatre Company production of XANADU.

upperWETside: Last time I had to write about XANADU, Hedda Lettuce was coming to town to screen it and spoof it over at the Asbury Lanes.

DAVID LEIDHOLDT: Right, I was there. As you probably heard, I’ve been called the World’s Biggest Xanadu Fan. To me, it kind of captures my prime teenage days — I was a big fan of Olivia Newton-John, of ELO, and of roller disco!

I was the Disco Boy in the middle of Detroit Rock City — I had to hide my disco-ness in high school, while everyone around me was into Kiss and Ted Nugent. These were the days of DRAD — Detroit Rockers for the Abolition of Disco. But every Thursday night, you’d find me over at Skateland USA in Plymouth, Michigan, for Disco Night!

Somewhere along the line, however, you connected with fellow Xanadu fans and found you were not so alone — and then flash forward to 2011 and it’s ‘Let’s put on a show.’ Now that I think of it, DISCO BOY would make an inspiring Broadway musical.

Well, when I moved to New York around 1993, I wound up working in Macy’s basement, selling cookware. One of my co-workers turned out to be a fellow Disco Kid, and we got to talking about how Xanadu would be amazing live. We even went so far as to see if we could possibly get the rights to adapt it as stage musical, but they didn’t want to talk to a couple of unknowns with no track record.

And this was at a time when the film was pretty much universally reviled, if it was remembered at all. But still, I couldn’t think of a better director to entrust this project to.

I wasn’t going to direct it originally — we announced Connor Gallagher as director, but he got the opportunity to do a new show called Fat Camp, so I stepped in. It’s a little odd to be working on a ‘period’ piece, and for the 20-somethings in the show, 1980 is definitely  ‘period!’ The kids in the cast have been gathering round, begging me to tell them another story from the 1980s.

One reason why I haven’t focused much upon directing is that when you’re a producer, your focus is more about dealing with budgets — you’re the guy that says NO when the director wants to do something different. But as ReVision Theatre has become more established here, we’ve been able to free ourselves up to be artists.

ART, in the case of XANADU, meaning roller disco! Does this mean we’re one step closer to doing  STARLIGHT EXPRESS there at the Carousel someday?

Oh, I don’t know where the rights sit with that one these days, but on the other hand, the place used to be a skate park, so anything’s possible.

With Xanadu, we’re doing an adaptation that’s simple and fun, with a nine-person cast. I would say that we’re disco-ing it up more than the Broadway version — it’s like Greek theater meets the Solid Gold Dancers!

The stage version’s already pretty self-aware as far as the camp factor goes. Whereas the original movie was, I don’t know if you could call it “serious,” but there was an earnestness about it that made it ripe for parody. I remember seeing it way back when, and feeling very poorly for Gene Kelly.

Well, Olivia Newton-John didn’t really have a movie career after that — at least not as a dancer! What I loved about the Broadway version was that they made fun of themselves — they have a lot of good fun at the expense of 80s styles, and Olivia, and they even found a way to make fun of Clash of the Titans, another movie from around that same time.

As for our production, like I said we’re working with a scaled down cast; more disco, a good deal of skating. Ralph, our actor playing Sonny, is a good roller skater. We hired a good choreographer, Michael Mindlin — and we have someone from the Roller Derby helping us out with the skating. You just have to embrace it.

Hopefully those young bodies in the cast are resilient enough to take whatever bumps and spills come their way.

We have a great young cast — Shira Elias is one of our Muses, as is Billy Lewis, who you might remember from our Tommy — he’ll be doing the lead in our Spring Awakening also. Bernard Dotson, who lives locally, will be doing the Gene Kelly role. And we’ll be doing disco dancing before the show; make it a cult thing.

XANADU skates into view on Thursday, July 7; opens July 8 (with an after party available to ticketholders) and continues through July 24 with performances at 8:00pm Wednesdays through Saturdays, and 7:00pm Sundays. Tickets range from $18 to $54, and can be reserved right here.

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