Monday, June 6, 2011

REVIEW: Lysistrata Jones

Review of the June 4 evening preview performance at The Gym at Judson off-Broadway in New York City. 2 hours, including one intermission. Starring Patti Murin, Josh Segarra, Liz Mikel, Alexander Aguilar, Katie Boren, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Max Kumangai, Kat Nejat, LaQuet Sharnell, Jason Tam, Teddy Toye and Alex Wyse.  Book by Douglas Carter Beane.  Music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn. Direction and choreography by Dan Knechtges.

Grade: A-

Fans of Tony nominee Douglas Carter Beane (myself included) will not be disappointed with his current work, Lysistrata Jones, which opened last night at the Gym at Judson, presented by Transport Group Theatre Company.  That it opened at this particular locale is crucial to the production as it now stands, even assuming all involved are hoping for a further life for the piece.  As the show takes place during college basketball season, it is more than appropriate that the show takes place in an actual gym, and the set is entirely on a modified basketball court.  Based upon the millennia-old Lysistrata by Aristophanes, this version of the comedy/sex-farce concerns the woeful Athens University Spartans (two different city-states, I know) who haven't won at hoops in 30 years, and a new girl on campus, Lysistrata Jones, who wants only that the team, that the school, become passionate about anything.  The resourceful, if not studious, babe forms a cheerleading squad to light some fire under the pitiful team, and when that does not work, concocts a plan that has worked from 411BC through I Love Lucy, through many an 80's teen flick, and right up until today: all sexual favors will be withheld until the team wins a game.  As the act one song says, "No More Giving It Up!" (the piece was formerly known as Giving It Up).  All of this may sound silly to the point of stupid, perhaps a tad sexist, and pretty cheesy.  I assure you it is not; after all, the play it is based upon is still performed after nearly two and a half centuries.  Beane doesn't go that far adrift from the original, and I think it says something about humanity that all these years later, it has relevancy.

Basketball is the game: GO SPARTANS!

OK, so not putting out to win a basketball game may not have the gravitas that Aristophanes' original no-nooky-until-the-war-is-over plan, but the idea that men and women are in a constant battle for control and that both sides use the most basic, animalistic aspect of being human, sexuality, as a weapon is as potent as ever.  Ask Arnold and Maria, the IMF chairman, John Edwards, etc.  Sex is a weapon folks, so why not celebrate that in song and dance?  Let me say it plainly here: Lysistrata Jones is as smart as it is silly, as witty as it is bawdy, and has some surprisingly emotional heft to it.  But most of all, it is fun, sexy and really doesn't try for much more than that, which is more than just fine.  Also just fine with this theatre-goer is its lack of cruel snarkiness, the hallmark of too many recent and current musical comedies.  Don't check your brain at the door (you can leave it on idle) because the laughs are just as often with literary allusion as they are about the various loins of human beings.  Sure, many of the jokes are razor-sharp, but they are never mean; the laughs are genuine, not ever tinged with an "aww" of shock value.  And once you give in to surprising sincerity amidst all of the giddiness, and you will, the show becomes just that much more enjoyable.

Lewis Flinn's modern, hip-hop infused score is always up to the intelligence of the book, and adds delightful punctuation to ideas at hand.  And when both the book and the score come together in an emotional moment, the show really soars, adding a heft and importance to the piece that grounds it, makes it a fuller experience, and shows us that the authors are going for much more than an extended comedy sketch.  Think High School Musical goes to college mixed with Xanadu with a healthy dash of Plato and you get the whole recipe of Lysistrata Jones.  Here as there, there is a comfort in types - the bookish girl of questionable sexuality who no one pays attention to; the loner college guy who speaks to no one and puts them off further with his scowl and menacing army jacket; the dumb, lazy frat boy jock; the Latina couple whose accent and use of Spanish are equal with the intensity of the given situation; the white boy who wants to be a bling carrying yo boy thug rapper, and of course, the always underestimated cheerleader type.  Yes, they are comfortable because we can recognize them even in a world we might not know, and it takes away any fear one might have of not knowing the original ancient play.  And there in, too, is the fun.  It is always fun to knock those stereotypes because we know they aren't always true, but are true enough that they have become stereotypes.  But even more fun than that is discovering all the fun that can be had when we find out there is WAY more to these types than is on the surface.  If that isn't timeless and universal, I don't know what is.

Let's talk types: bookish library assistant, wannabe
cheerleader, social outcast, urban thug hopeful
and basketball team captain

The design team really nails the wit and wisdom of the piece, offering as many visual jokes and puns as the script does.  Allen Moyer's set design takes full advantage of the gym space, and supplements it with some ingeniously creative uses for two gym locker banks, while the costumes (designed by David Woolard and Thomas Charles LeGalley) are a laugh riot all by themselves, and range from Greek Goddess motifs, to cheerleading warm ups, to full on basketball uniforms.  And, especially given the gym setting, Michael Gottlieb's lighting design is amazing for its intricacy and some really cool fixtures that hang above the gym floor.  Only Tony Meola's sound design suffers a bit, not because of an echo as one might expect, but because the low roof, loud band and high volume body mics conspire against one another on a few occasions, making the lyrics and dialogue muffled and even a tad unintelligible.  Thankfully, this isn't often, and I can't even begin to suggest how to fix it without giving up the amazing space they are using.

Girl Power!
um... Boy Power...

Directed and choreographed by Dan Knechtges, the show is energetic and exciting to watch from start to finish.  Act one suffers just a bit from trying to cram too much of the "this is the kind of show we are doing" into it, and from not getting to any kind of genuine emotion until the very last song of the first half, a power ballad that is excellently staged and delivered called "Where Am I Now."  In the midst of setting up the plot and subplots and introducing all of the characters, a hint that there would be some true moments prior to the act closer might have elevated the "great" first act to the "Excellent" first act.  And while much of this is a function of the book and the inspiration of the original Aristophanes, I can't help but wonder if Mr. Knechtges might have chosen a couple of times to slow things down to allow us to catch our breath.  Still, in the spectrum of things, this is a small quibble.  Especially when one considers the near perfection of act two, which is equal parts zany sex romp, emotional release, and really cool staging.  Act two, simply put, is pure fun and pay off.  Not that there was any doubt how it would end before it even started, it is really a pleasure to say that all of the last minute plot twists and long-term set ups pay off in a very pleasing, often surprising way.  The getting to the end is the fun, not the end itself.  Act two also features one of the most exciting extended stagings I've seen in a very long time, since the Prologue to West Side Story maybe (the second act Mormon pageant in The Book of Mormon comes close, too).  It is called the "Right Now Operetta" and is one of those big numbers which rehash the wants and needs of each plot, subplot and character, while showing us how they all fit together at the greatest moment of climax in the story.  Knechtges' choreography reminds one of Fosse, Robbins and Stroman all at once, and yet all with an original dance language of its own.  It is his best choreography to date by far.

Basketball, Broadway-style
The girls find inspiration on the Internet

A show like this really requires an entire cast of actors who all truly, to the fiber of their being, understand the tone, the message and the exact way this specific kind of comedy needs to be delivered.  And each of the dozen cast members is fully present on that "same page."  A true ensemble piece, the show would suffer without any of these people.  Katie Boren and Max Kumangai are a riot as they both embody racial stereotypes as much as they eschew them, landing every inevitable racially tinged joke in such a way that makes them delightfully less inevitable feeling and never offensive.  Teddy Toye and Alex Wyse both delight with their downright adorableness - Toye with his cute smile and Shirley Temple curls, Wyse with his diminutive stature and loud mouth "yo boy - thug" persona.  What really sells them both, though, is the breadth of their talents as dancers.  As the sexy, fiery Latino couple, Alexander Aquilar and Kat Nejat bring all the silly passion of a telenovela to life, basking in the humor of their heritage while honoring the strength of it.  And like the rest of the company, they are superb dancers - her extension is incredible. LaQuet Sharnell brings her own brand of sass to her role, which at one point requires her to go, um, undercover, as a hooker, while putting one over on her lover (Mr. Wyse, who plays the shock and awe in this scene to perfection).  Not since Lola seduced Young Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees, has there been such a hot use of two bodies and a piece of furniture as there is in that scene and number, "Don't Judge a Book."

Patti Murin and Jason Tam

As social outcast and leftist blogger Xander, Jason Tam (so incredible in the revival of A Chorus Line) shows off his dancing and comedic skills, as his character undergoes a transformation on par with Pygmalion.  His number, "Hold On," stands out musically - he delivers it with gusto - but also visually, as he creates what amounts to an entire dance made up of Grecian urn poses.  Picture, if you will, gods and goddesses in poses on pottery that get there via a hilarious combination of Pilates, yoga and ballet moves.  It is complicated, made to look easy, and is always fun.  One of the nicest surprises of the night is Lindsay Nicole Chambers as Robin, the militantly abrasive library assistant who expresses herself through putting down everyone else through slam poetry of all things.  Like Mr. Tam, Ms. Chambers is afforded a rich character that undergoes a massive and funny transformation, and she takes full advantage.  She is just one of those actors you find yourself drawn to, and watch even when she isn't the focus.  Remember her name.

Liz Mikel

The voluptuous and wonderfully funny Liz Mikel uses everything she has - booty, booby, and sassy hair extensions included - as Hetaira, who narrates this complex tale and even takes part as the madam of the Eros Motor Lodge and brothel.  She has powerful pipes, blistering comic timing and an ease about her that allows you to relax within 15 seconds of the show starting.

Josh Segarra and Patti Murin
Mick and Lysistrata Jones

The central characters of Mick and Lysistrata are played with exuberance and a tantalizingly sexy eroticism by Josh Segarra and Patti Murin, respectively.  Being that this is a sex farce/romp/comedy it is only fitting that both exude an almost palpable sexuality, not just with each other, but with every character they come into contact with.  And given that the plot revolves around the withholding of sexual favors, it makes the whole show that much more adult fun.  She is as scantily clad as a cheerleader can be throughout, and he is shirtless and down to undies more than once, and given the variety of situations they are in, they cover most of the permutations of orientation there are, and you never really feel like it is gratuitous or even uncomfortable.  That, I think pays tribute to some very well thought out direction, a smarter than it seems book and two actors who are so comfortable in their own skin that they make us all feel comfortable.  The result is that it makes the whole show kind of naughty but never off-putting.  It also tells you that these two are wonderfully talented.  That they both sing like birds, act with an ease and an edge, and can dance like Astaire is a given.  That they can both create such wide ranging characters with all of their quirks and oddities is what is a marvel to watch.  You believe that she is worldly wise beyond her years, even if it is with the aid of wifi, laptops and an iPhone with sketchy connectivity.  You believe he is an athlete interested only in the booty he can get for simply showing up, but never trying to win a game, just as much as you can believe that he has memorized poems by some of the best in the English language and can write papers on the "411" of plays written in "411BC" and their relevancy to the 21st Century.  They are, to be sure, stars on the rise - watch for them.

With Xanadu and now Lysistrata under his belt, I think Mr. Beane should consider creating a Grecian trilogy of fun, sexy musicals.  I'd love to see what he can do with a boy as the central character in ancient/modern times... how about Eddie R.: The Oedipus Rex Musical?  Or if you like the symmetry of strong female leads, Medea could be a real hoot.  Until then, it will be fun to see where Lysistrata Jones, perhaps slightly expanded, might end up.  More urgently, though, snap up whatever tickets are left for this production before it closes June 19.  It could be the only time theatre geeks will ever feel fully comfortable in a gym!

(Photos by Carol Rosegg)

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