Hell on Wheels

Photo: Paul Kolnik/courtesy of BlueCurrent Public Relations

It must have been budget constraints that kept Xanadu’s producers from adding the final, essential touch to its décor: a pair of twenty-foot-tall quotation marks, one on either side of the stage. Douglas Carter Beane, fresh off a different sort of bottom-feeding (The Little Dog Laughed, a wicked satire on soulless Hollywood agenting), has reimagined the famously bad 1980 film as a Broadway musical by feasting on the movie’s remains. The story (Venice Beach artist is inspired by, and falls in love with, a roller-skating Greek demigod) and the score (synth-pop songs by ELO, which sound surprisingly at home on the newly rocking Great White Way) are vaguely the same. Only this time, we are invited to laugh at Sonny (Cheyenne Jackson) when he decides to kick off the eighties by establishing “the apex of all the arts—a roller disco.” Kira’s Australian accent in the film likewise becomes a punch line for Kerry Butler, who plays her here. In interviews, Beane has spoken of the deep themes of creativity and mortality in Sonny’s artistic urges, which sounds to me like one last meta-joke. Because this show works at about the level of a Rocky Horror sing-along, plus leg warmers.

If the show were just campy—90 minutes of reveling in a bad film’s badness—I might not have minded it. Much. (A pas de deux for girl in roller skates and boy in telephone booth is funny, no matter why it happens.) But there’s a second strain in the show, one even more grating than the kitsch. Where Hairspray fell back on sentiment to soften John Waters’s film for a big Broadway crowd, Xanadu turns snarky, straining again and again for a clever way to undercut something, anything, everything—including itself, whenever a vaguely heartfelt or sincere moment seems about to occur. Is there a world record for longest continuously held smirk?

Director Christopher Ashley lashes things together smoothly, if without the inventive wit he brought to All Shook Up, the gay–Elvis–meets–Twelfth Night musical a few years back. But what can I say? The show’s a comedy that didn’t give me many laughs—at least, not beyond the overarching, somewhat bitter one about what’s happened to the climate of New York theater. Thanks to Xanadu and the forthcoming Grease, we’re living in a world where the leading lady of Broadway is Olivia Newton-John.

It’s no surprise that the Barrow Street Theatre has a hit on its hands with Gone Missing, the Civilians’ hilarious, heartbreaking “documentary cabaret” about things lost and found. (The members of the troupe are friends of mine, but the unbiased critics have been eating it up, too.) What does come as a surprise is the musical that shares the stage with it on weekend nights: the downtown company Waterwell’s brilliant and perplexing The/King/Operetta.

Early reviews have criticized the show, rightly, for being too jokey about the last year in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s one thing to depict J. Edgar Hoover as a buffoon who belongs in a Weimar cabaret, but the president who signed the Civil Rights Act deserves far, far better than the cartoonishly dumb, foulmouthed cracker LBJ becomes here. Still, harping on the show’s excesses (or its silly full title, which runs The Last Year in the Life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as Devised by Waterwell: A Rock Operetta) misses what’s extraordinary about it.

Whether delivered in plain speech (by the excellent Rodney Gardiner) or set to Lauren Cregor’s energetic rock score, the script incorporates long passages from King’s final addresses, including the Riverside Church address in which he called for “a revolution of values.” The generous quoting allows the show to throw jabs at pretty much everyone, from conservatives who can’t imagine a patriotism informed by pacifism to liberals who have forgotten the language of faith. Yet far from being didactic, the play is often laugh-out-loud funny, and unexpectedly dramatic.

To the extent that playwrights have paid attention to historical figures lately, they’ve tended toward the villainous (Nixon), the obscure (Herzen), and the fashionably violent (Che Guevara). Some of their plays have been terrific, but taken together, they’ve failed to make the most of theater’s ability to bring the dead back to living, breathing, three-dimensional life. So credit Waterwell with having the wisdom to revive a true moral hero, and the guts to wrestle not just with his oratory but his doubts, nightmares, failings, and passion (in both sacred and secular senses). A little obnoxiousness in the service of letting us hear from Dr. King again doesn’t seem a heavy burden to bear.

By Douglas Carter Beane. Helen Hayes Theatre.

Conceived by Waterwell. Barrow Street Theatre. Through August 11.

E-mail: theatercritic@newyorkmag.com.

Hell on Wheels