“Xanadu” is inspired by the roller disco craze of the 1970s.
But for Jason Cooper, it wasn’t initially obvious that his Chicken Coop Theatre Company should perform their run of the oddball musical at an actual roller rink.
“Very casually, at a board meeting for Chicken Coop, someone just said, ‘Oh, what if it’s actually at a roller rink?’ And it was like a slot machine, all the light bulbs went off,” Cooper told WFPL News. “Oh my god, yes, it has to be.”
“Champ’s was so excited about it right from the get go,” he said.
Owner Joe Champa said they’ve never done anything like this before. But how could they say no to hosting a show about the “zenith of roller skating?”
“It’s nostalgia, it’s fun, it’s just different… I guess I did it on a whim,” he said. “But it’s part of roller skating, part of disco and part of the community.”
A famously bad film that became a cult classic
The original 1980 “Xanadu” movie borrows from Greek mythology.
It stars Olivia Newton-John as Kira, a literal muse. She inspires struggling artist Sonny Malone, played by Michael Beck. And the two eventually team up with former big band leader and another person Kira once inspired, Danny McGuire – Gene Kelly’s final on-screen role before his death. Together, they aspire to build a roller disco club.
“Xanadu” is said to have drawn on a Rita Hayworth movie from the 1950s with a similar storyline.
The flick flopped at the box office, and many critics panned it – said to be so bad that, according to the Hollywood Reporter, it played a role in launching the Golden Raspberry Awards, or the Razzies, a spoof accolade on the other end of the spectrum from the Oscars.
But “Xanadu” captivated Cooper as a kid.
“It was so off the wall, and I just connected with it.”
Despite the initial response, “Xanadu” gained a following and endured over the decades.
Several decades later, it inspired a Broadway show, which leans more heavily into the movie’s mythological inspirations.
“When I saw it on Broadway, I had to go back the next night because I loved it so much,” Cooper said.
He found the stage version smart and funny. And two years into a pandemic that’s brought so much loss, Cooper felt it was the right time to present it in Louisville.
“This show is just a big explosion of fun and glitter and fluff,” he said. “It does have heart, and there is a message. But mostly it’s just fun. And I don’t think we’ve ever been in any more need of it.”
A musical on wheels
In Chicken Coop Theatre Company’s “Xanadu,” the show will be right in the middle of the rink, and the entire cast is, at least at some point, on roller skates.
“I am in them the entire show except when I take them off to do one scene in tap shoes and then I put them back on,” said Kirstie Cook Buckley, who plays Kira, the Olivia Newton-John character, in Chicken Coop Theatre’s run.
Buckley said she was pretty rusty with her skating skills because it had been awhile.
“The first time I had put on roller skates since I was probably 10 years old, was about a month and a half ago,” she said.
Then there’s the fact that she had to figure out how to sing while in motion, which comes with its own challenges. Buckley said she’s had skates on since day one to help her understand what her body would need to stay upright while belting out a tune.
“Breathing and using your diaphragm while skating is weird because, obviously, you hold yourself differently while you’re on roller skates,” she said. “So yeah, it’s been interesting.”
She’s stoked to put the newly acquired skills on her resume though.
For Mandy Kramer, who plays the muse Calliope, the added layer of complexity came with doing choreography on wheels.
“My character, specifically, is really physical,” Kramer said.
“And Jason the other night was like, ‘Be big.’ And I’m like, ‘But I’m on roller skates.’ So that’s been definitely a challenge… thinking about like, what I would do physically with my character if I wasn’t on roller skates and then trying to figure out how to do that without falling down.”
They’ll use Champ’s Rollerdrome’s traditional lighting, complete with lasers, disco balls and a fog machine.
‘A novel approach… born out of necessity’
The musical and venue seem to be “a perfect marriage,” artistic producing director Jason Cooper said.
But the idea to perform “Xanadu” in a rink is also a solution to, what he sees as, a major problem facing Louisville theater: a dearth of affordable performance space.
“The idea of doing a show outside of a traditional theater is as much of a necessity as it is a gimmick,” Cooper said.
Leaning into the gimmick, each performance is followed by a skate party. So audience members can cap off the night with a spin round the rink.