BLOOMINGTON — Thanks to the all-singing, all-dancing nature of the beast, staging a musical of any kind can be a challenge for a director.
For Jean MacFarland Kerr, associate professor in Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Theatre Arts, a new wrinkle was added for the upcoming production of "Xanadu."
The show, premiering Tuesday on the Jerome Mirza Theatre stage in McPherson Hall, is performed, if not totally, at least frequently on ... roller skates.
And the stage itself eventually morphs into a full-blown 1980s roller disco for the big, hyper-glitzy climax.
Kerr remembers seeing the 1980 Gene Kelly/Olivia Newton-John movie from whence this show sprang in 2007 ... as a proudly campy, Tony-nominated stage musical.
Not bad for an enterprise based on a film that lasted about two weeks in cinemas in the late summer of 1980, and wound up on most critics' "worst of the year" lists.
"I enjoyed the movie," Kerr recalls of that introductory experience some 38 years ago.
"I'm a Gene Kelly fan. He stole my heart when I was a 10- or 11-year-old, and he's part of the reason I became a dance choreographer."
Even though Kerr enjoyed "Xanadu" for that aspect, "I didn't really understand it."
When she found out she'd be directing the stage adaptation for IWU, Kerr revisited that part of her past for the first time since, via DVD, and came to the realization that, Kelly notwithstanding, "it is not a very well-written movie. And I thought, 'Oh, dear, what is this going to be?'"
But that was then, and this is now: Kerr is delighted with the show and what her willing-and-able nine-actor cast is managing, oft-times on skates.
"It really is a much better-written script than the movie ... it's still campy and glittery and silly, but it also makes fun of pop culture in the ’80s, and we know we're being silly," says Kerr.
Thanks to the largely gay cult that grew up around the movie, fueled by its catchy, hook-laden song score by the Electric Light Orchestra's Jeff Lynne and Newton-John's regular songwriter John Farrar, "Xanadu" grew to "Rocky Horror Picture Show" proportions in its various midnight movie/sing-along revivals.
For the stage adaptation, the central premise remains the same: In Los Angeles, an artist named Sonny Malone whose career frustrations as an album cover designer are cured when he meets Kira (played by Newton-John in the movie), a muse dispatched from Mount Olympus to help him find inspiration.
Also a part of the story is Danny McGuire (Kelly in the movie), a former big band musician with a dream of his own: to restore an old theater into a live music venue called Xanadu.
Kara Ryan who has the role of Kira (yes, the similar names have not gone unnoticed by all involved) admits to having had minimal skating experience prior to taking the part that requires her to be on skates for most of its 90-minute length.
"There are only about three numbers when I'm not on skates, so it has been really interesting," she says.
"I trained on my own every day over winter break. And then the cast went to (Bloomington's) Skate 'N' Place every weekend for a month-and-a-half, and the owners there really helped us."
Kerr asked Ryan to keep the skates on, even during the first two weeks of rehearsal, when the show was still being blocked.
"It was so I would get used to being in them for four hours ... now it almost feels weird not to be wearing them," Ryan adds.
"She's worked super-hard ... and become as home on skates as the rest of us are with walking," adds Kerr.
So far, no one has taken a spill because of the special requirements and things are, well, rolling along smoothly.
Though Ryan is the cast member required to skate the most through in-the-round set, everyone eventually winds up on rollers for the big finale, set in Xanadu to the ELO beat of the same-named song (a live band is also part of the on-stage proceedings).
In addition to head muse Kira, her fellow muses are also part of the action, kept on stage throughout.
"The muses are what really sells it for me," not so much the roller skating around the set, confesses Kerr.
"They sing some fantastic songs ... so harmonious. They're (the singers) fantastic, and I get to play with them like the animated 'Hercules' from Disney did."
As part of the set design, 30 to 40 audience members will be seated on stage with skating cast members.
"If you want to be close to the action, you can do that by sitting there," advises Kerr. "But if you choose that, you need to know that you will be messed with a little bit by the muses ... "