Thursday, May 17, 2012

CD Review: Lysistrata Jones

Cast Recording new kid on the block, Broadway Records, is three-for-three!  Following their previous two releases, Bonnie and Clyde and the Nick Jonas EP How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, which were top-notch recordings and superior quality in production, comes the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Lysistrata Jones.  An unlikely candidate for such treatment despite being one of the best reviewed musicals of the entire season, the show ran for just 30 performances last winter.  Thank goodness someone saw fit to set this score to a permanent record.  And with such a high quality treatment!  That said, on its own, without benefit of the sassy, smart book by Douglas Carter Beane or the staging and choreography of Dan Knechtges, the score by Lewis Flinn at first listen is an iffy proposition.  But after a few listenings, I have found the score to be quite entertaining and full of several little gems.  Granted, I have the benefit of having seen the show twice and can visualize some of what is going on from memory. When you get this OBCR, and you should, give it a few plays before you decide how you feel about it.  I admit that it probably won't be one I listen to over and over all the way through (Bonnie and Clyde is still in my CD player getting start-to-finish play daily), but there are several numbers that I'll listen to regularly.  And when I want high energy, fun music to make me smile, this disc will be a go-to for sure!


Title: Lysistrata Jones
Artist: Original Broadway Cast Recording
Label: Broadway Records
Number: BR-CD00312
Format: Single CD
Case: Single Jewel Case
Booklet: Full color, 32 pages.  Production photos by Joan Marcus and Michael Gottlieb; complete synopsis by Douglas Carter Beane, complete lyrics by Lewis Flinn; liner notes by Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn.
Bonus Track: Jennifer Holliday sings a gospel/blues version of "Hold On"

The Lysistrata Jones Company


5.  To support the quality recording of modern theatre scores, allowing smaller shows a better shot at future life beyond Broadway.

I've said it before, and I've said it often.  And it bears repeating.  As lovers of musical theatre, we must support any and all efforts to preserve not only the rich past of the genre, but perhaps even more, we need to support and nurture modern voices on the Broadway scene.  And that means taking chances on shows that take chances, with or without the critical huzzahs that more middle of the road fare generally gets.  Often, I hear people complain that shows don't take enough risks, or that when they do, they second guess themselves half way through.  But then, when a risky show comes along, so many are quick to judge without even seeing the product they are against.  I think it is more than terrific that Broadway Records has seen fit to fill in the gaps left by other companies, and has taken a chance on a show that took a lot of chances by recording Lysistrata Jones.  Aside from having it as a keepsake from a show I enjoyed thoroughly, I am pleased to see that future productions are even more likely with the advent of this cast recording.  It gives potential producers one more tool in deciding whether or not Miss Jones and the Athens University Spartans will be a part of upcoming seasons.  And I'll bet that this high-quality recording and package will have the show being seen all over the country in no time.

The Girls of Athens U: Kat Nejat, Lindsay Nicole Chambers,
Patti Murin, LaQuet Sharnell and Katie Boren

4.  The first-rate treatment of the recording's accompanying booklet.

I'll venture a guess that if you are reading this, you are a lover of musical theatre like I am.  I don't know about you, but I hate cast recordings that come with little or no booklet.  Well, Broadway Records and designer Van Dean have outdone themselves with the booklet for this CD.  Much like the booklet for Bonnie and Clyde, this represents a real souvenir of the production, which didn't run long enough to produce a program.  And this booklet is as creative and quirky as the show it represents.  Set up like a yearbook of sorts, it has the "Dean of Athens University," Douglas Carter Beane providing both liner notes and a sharp, funny plot synopsis, and from "the Music Department," aka Lewis Flinn, more liner notes and the complete lyrics (and I mean complete!).  There is also the "Student Body" page with head shots of the entire cast, along with character captions that are a riot.  Throughout the rest of the booklet are dozens of production shots, some not seen before this, along with clever, silly and snarky "handwritten" notes about the pictures, presumably written by Lysistrata Jones herself.  The whole thing - all 32 pages of it - is a fun way to remember a fun show for those of us who saw it, and great way to get acquainted with a new friend for those who missed it.

3.  The preservation of a surprising and surprise-filled score.

Upon my first listening of the CD, I was surprised to find that I didn't actually like it as much as I recalled from seeing the show.  It is one score, even after several repeat hearings, that is definitely more understandable if you have both the context of the book scenes and the visual of the truly exciting staging and choreography of Dan Knechtges.  Part of the reason for that, I think, is because Lewis Flinn's compositions and lyrics are so specific to the story and the characters.  Without the benefit of more dialogue, which would have improved the CD quite a bit - and I've seen the show twice - a lot of the humor will likely go over the heads of some (be sure you read the plot synopsis), and parts of the songs may not makes sense unless you REALLY know the story.  For example, there is a character named Robin, and references to "Robin" made by one of the guys on the team.  His girlfriend assumes he's hooking up with the character Robin, but that is not the case at all.  "Robin" refers to Batman and Robin, and a relationship problem the girlfriend doesn't see coming.  It shows up in one of the later numbers on the CD.  I laughed, but I also wondered if anyone could get that without having seen the show

That said, I advise you to listen to the CD a few times all the way through.  I think you'll find plenty to like about it.  I often hear fans complain that music and lyrics (even of the greats like Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein) are full of "things these characters would NEVER say" or that the songs "don't match the story or time period."  You absolutely can not say that about Flinn's eclectic score or lyrics, which are a virtual study on how to write for character and time period.  The score has a huge range of styles in it, from Gregorian Chanting to hip hop rapping to Michael Buble-esque pop, plus a generous portion of competitive cheer leading style arena rock and dance rhythms.  Given that the majority of the musical centers of a cheer leading squad and a basketball team, it isn't a surprise that there is a lot of that "Let's get ready to rumble!" style of music.  And given that these are modern day college students, it is completely right that a great deal of their sung dialogue is in the hip hop rap style so popular with club DJs these days.  

Mick vs Lysistrata: Josh Segarra and Patti Murin

The Athens University Men's Basketball Team:
Ato Blankson-Wood, Alex Wyse, Josh Segarra,
Alexander Aguilar and Teddy Toye

Actually, it is quite funny to hear in the score that they make point of calling out the white kids who sing in that idiom, while the Latinos and African-Americans mock them for sounding "ghetto." (I sincerely don't mean that to sound as racist as it may seem - it is very telling joke throughout the show, ultimately showing everyone in a good light, honest!)  Since the show has that college athletic context and a cast of 20-something characters, it makes perfect sense that a lot of the score is in that style.  For me, it is a little too much of a good thing, and makes it sound more repetitive in isolation than it is when it plays on stage.

But what really works for all of those huge numbers is that within each, the style might change 4 or 5 times within a song, matching tone and character perfectly.  And I dare you not to chant along - I can't stop saying "right now!" "hold on!" and "give it up!" in my head, it is that infectious.  What also works for this score is that when the big cheer-game production numbers are over, in between you get some really great pop and r and b tunes and, wait for it, some serious 70's funk, reminiscent of the films "Super Fly," "Car Wash," and "Shaft." Complete with what sounds exactly like a Wurlitzer organ (popular in 50's roller rinks, too) and funky wah wah guitar, these numbers are laugh-out-loud funny, calling to mind, and appropriately so, pimp daddies and their stables of hookers.  Even though the sound is a throw back to a long ago era, it makes sense that today's kids would sing and dance to that style when the tone is sleazy, dirty sex.  Ask any kid today to musically characterize porn, and they'll probably sing, "Bow chick-a wow wow!" EXACTLY the tone of the numbers involving trips to the Eros Motor Lodge for some, um, release. 

Like I said, there is a lot to this score.  Don't dismiss the pop sound or the simplistic, repetitive lyrics (but with a very smart edge to them all).  If you want to hear the nearly perfect union of music and lyrics to time, place and character, this score is a master class in it.

"Hold On": Patti Murin and Jason Tam

2.  Several stand out numbers

Taken in isolation as one must when listening to a cast recording, it is interesting hear which songs stick with you the most.  Are they the same ones that you loved when you saw the show, or are there songs that you like the more you listen to them?  Lysistrata Jones has both.  In the theatre, I loved the huge opening number ("Right Now: Opening"), the equally huge climax number ("Right Now: Operetta") and the sweet "Hold On."  I loved the first two because they were exciting to watch and full of plot twists and turns condensed into about 20 minutes altogether.  And I loved the latter because I really enjoyed Jason Tam's adorable performance and the chemistry between him and Patti Murin.  The CD only makes me love all three even more.  I also find the tribute/parody to the High School Musical style (with definite college growth) to be hilarious and almost mind-numbingly infectious in both "You Go Your Way" and "Give It Up." Both songs sing with after-school special platitudes about being yourself and fighting the status quo, and both manage to send up the sentiment and yet seem to believe it sincerely.  And I have really come to enjoy one song I don't even remember from the show, "Lay Low," an intoxicating, erotic Latin flavored tune that sounds like it could have been in In the Heights. I also love that it is funny and blunt as sung by the horny guys who aren't getting any and are re-grouping to beat the girls at their own game.  The cleverness of the slow tune against the sexually charged lyrics is an awesome counterpoint.

"No More Giving It Up"

1. The performances by an energetic, youthful cast.

I have a feeling that years from now, when I look back at the cast list of Lysistrata Jones, it will read like a who's who of Broadway (and probably TV and film) stars. With the exception of a few numbers, most of the songs a big group numbers.  And it speaks to the quality of every single cast member that with in each song their distinct voices and firm grasp on their characters comes shining through song after song.  Even after each is literally introduced in the opening number, even those hearing the score the first time will have no trouble telling each actor apart, and you won't go away wondering what these people are all about.  Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Katie Boren and Kat Nejat probably have the least to do on the recording and yet come across like stars of the show every time they are on. (Ms. Chambers has a significant role in the show, and the recording only reinforces my feeling that I wish she got to sing more on her own.)  LaQuet Sharnell is a powerful singer - watch out Beyonce! - and her "Don't Judge a Book" is as well sung as it is funny.  As Goddess/narrator Hetaira, Liz Mikel is even better on the CD than she was live on stage!  What a diva!  I hope she gets back to Broadway and FAST.  

Go, Spartans!

Josh Segarra and Liz Mikel

On the male side, Alexander Aguilar, Ato Blankson-Wood and Teddy Toye have the least amount of CD time, but all three make a definite impression as the Latin Lothario, bookish smart guy and shy geek, respectively.  In the play, all three have much more to do.  Alex Wyse is a scream as a Jewish Hip Hopster (their term, not mine); every time he talks I laugh, and he sings very well, particularly in duet with Ms. Sharnell in "Don't Judge a Book."  As I mentioned earlier, Jason Tam really shines in "Hold On," both on stage and on this recording.  A lot of what makes his character interesting (like Ms. Chambers) is in the dialogue.  I really wish there was a bit more of it included.  Josh Segarra  really does well on the CD, sounding even more vocally sure of himself than he did onstage in his two big solos, "Lay Low" and "When She Smiles." 

Patti Murin is Lysistrata Jones

Patti Murin comes across especially well, even without a lot of her speeches, and proves that she can, in fact, handle a leading role.  She's the pert and perfect blend of silly girly girl and smarter-than-she-lets-on woman.  Murin gets the joke and plays it to the hilt.  And the gal can sing!  Just listen to her let her belt out as she powers through the act one closer, "Where Am I Now?" Can you say, "audition song"?  

I look forward to watching this talented group grow.

The play on which this show is based, Aristophanes' Lysistrata, is a bawdy, silly romp of a sex farce - one of the very first ever written.  How totally cool it is that bawdy and silly still works today?  Keep that frame of mind when you listen to Lysistrata Jones, and you'll find a super good time.

Read my review of the Broadway production HERE.

(CD Cover from The Broadway Records release of Lysistrata Jones; production photos by Joan Marcus; photo of Lewis Flinn and Douglas Carter Beane at the Opening Night of Lysistrata Jones on Broadway from Getty Images)

Full disclosure statement:  I received a complimentary copy of this cast recording from Broadway Records, who approached me, with the objective of writing a review of the recording.  It was very clear, for both myself and the production company, at all times, that I was under no obligation to write a positive review.  The above opinions are mine alone.

@jkstheatrescene (Twitter); (email); Comment below (Blogger)

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