The fun, joy, light and laughter that hit Weber State University last fall like a laser bolt from the '80s is about to strike Salt Lake City as a perky Greek muse and her sisters rise once again.
Under the direction of a man who regularly works his magic on stage, a new incarnation of the hit musical "Xanadu" opens Thursday, May 10, at the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake.
The zany romp made its regional premiere last November at WSU with Jim Christian, director of musical theater studies at the school, leading the cavalcade of silliness.
"It's really a fun piece," Christian said. "There is nothing else like it out there."
The musical -- a loving spoof of the 1980 cult classic film starring Olivia Newton-John -- premiered on Broadway in 2007. Christian saw the show on the Great White Way and knew he had to bring it to Utah audiences. The score for the jukebox musical includes a number of memorable hits from Newton-John as well as Electric Light Orchestra, including "Magic," "Xanadu," "All Over the World," "I'm Alive," "Suddenly" and "Evil Woman."
One of those evil women is WSU musical theater student Shelby Andersen, who is reprising her role in the Grand Theatre production as Calliope -- the lesser of two evil muse sisters. Andersen performed the role in the WSU production, which sold out and went on to win national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival accolades.
"It's about creating and about love, and it's such a fun show to work on," Andersen said. "It's just pure joy all the time -- on stage and off. The cast is great and script is awesome and the music is fantastic. It's just joy."
Who's got short shorts?
Andersen is not the only familiar face in this new production. Returning cast members include Maggie Goertzen as Urania, and Stephanie Jameson, who takes on the role of Erato and also serves as Christian's dance captain. WSU graduate Sean Bishop is putting on his short shorts again to recreate the leading-man role of Sonny, a chalk artist living in 1980s Venice Beach.
The role has been a dream for Bishop, who said he is delighted to be playing the part again. In fact, Bishop has become so associated with the role that people are starting to call him Sonny.
"There is another Sean in the cast, so they just call me Sonny instead," Bishop said with a laugh. "I have become him. He is me."
The second time around has allowed Bishop more time to flesh out the character and provided him with a chance to perform the part over a longer period of time -- something every aspiring performer dreams of, Bishop said.
"He's very much there for the audience to have someone grounded amongst all these crazy people," Bishop said. "It's funny because Sonny is so out there. He's gregarious and kind of stupid, but likeable. I'm realizing more and more that it's my job to just be likeable and relatable and try to find some groundedness in the zaniness that is 'Xanadu.' "
In the story, Sonny becomes despondent and a little suicidal over the state of his art. Inspiration comes in the form of a Greek muse named Clio, who rises with her sisters out of his sidewalk creation to help Sonny find Xanadu, which Bishop said is basically happiness and "your own personal nirvana."
In Sonny's case, his bliss would be the creation of a roller disco -- but he needs help. Enter the feather-haired muse Clio, who descends from Mt. Olympus to light a fire under his dreams. Clio disguises her true identity by strapping on a pair of roller skates, speaking in an Australian accent and calling herself Kira. The role is played by Salt Lake City actress Ashley Gardner Carlson, who also teaches at Westminster College.
"She's a delightful performer and she's got a wonderful energy," Christian said of his leading lady. "She is going to be terrific in the role."
Bishop has particularly enjoyed working with Carlson as she is not afraid to "get physical" -- as a certain Australian pop star once put it. During the "Fool" number, Clio tells Sonny off for being stupid and not believing in her.
"She goes a little buck wild for a second and starts throwing me around and it's fun," Bishop said.
"Xanadu" also explores the age-old question of forbidden love and whether or not it's a good idea for mortals and nonmortals to fall in love. Throw in some roller skating and a sendup to another bad 1980s film -- "Clash of The Titans" -- and you have the recipe for an evening of musical theater confection of the sweetest kind.
One of the best compliments Christian said he received during the WSU run came from an audience member who told him the show "was the most delicious piece of literary bubble gum I have ever chewed."
Christian is working to make the Grand Theatre show pop as well, but noted that it will be different from the WSU production in a couple of ways. The WSU show was presented in the Eccles Theater, a black box theater, while the Grand Theatre is a traditional proscenium stage
"It has definitely created a new opportunity in terms of what can be done with the staging," Christian said. "The skating is very different in this space."
Roller skating is an even bigger challenge when you are trying to be evil and funny at the same time.
"Up at Weber we never had to worry about, like, falling off the stage," Andersen said. "This time around you have to be really conscious of 'OK, there's the end of the stage,' and it's a whole different thing."
While she is working to avoid injury, Andersen is having the time of her life being the "assistant to the evilness" of her less humorous sister Melpomene, played by Utah favorite Camille Gerber Van Wagoner.
"It's really fun to have someone else to play off of," Andersen said. "She is fantastic and we have a lot of fun together."
The two sisters create chaos of the Greek tragedy kind when Sonny and Clio begin to fall in love and Clio subsequently faces banishment to the Underworld. She is summoned to appear before a panel of unamused gods for her non-Muse-like behavior. What ensues is a hilarious sendup to "Clash of the Titans," coupled with Newton-John's hit "Have You Never Been Mellow" -- along with some giggle-inducing costuming.
"It's a great piece of theater," Andersen said. "If you want a good laugh and just to be reminded of life and joy and love and art, then it's a great show to see."