08 January 2012

‘Lysistrata Jones’ on Broadway: A Glimpse before Closing

Unless I write this very, very fast, and you read even faster, the new musical comedy Lysistrata Jones will have ended its Broadway run by the time you read this. Twenty-five years after the demise of Rags and one year after I attended the final performance of the dispiriting Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, I feel terrible whenever a show closes. In this case, I spent a great deal of time wondering where the show will go next on a fascinating path that took it from the Dallas Theater Center to a real gymnasium off-Broadway to the bright lights of the Walter Kerr Theater.

I wondered, too, what will become of Lysistrata Jones’ winning cast in a Broadway environment that seems increasingly incapable of supporting bright young talent in anything but the generic chorus of a tourist-trap thrill-ride. I didn’t spend much time wondering what went wrong with this show, however, or why it’s closing: that much seems clear.

Hetaira (Liz Mikel) holds court.

Much to my relief, Douglas Carter Beane’s book is not a transplantation of Aristophanes’ antiwar comedy to a college cheerleading squad. After all, basketball is an uneasy equivalent for war.* Lysistrata Jones isn’t Carmen Jones, not an updating or retelling in different context but merely a starting point: this is another story entirely, in which Aristophanes’ play (or the Spark Notes thereto) inspires a plucky blonde cheerleader. And so the present-day Lysistrata (named by parents who were theater majors) tries to force the hapless but horny Athens University basketball team to win a game.

Beane’s script is awfully clever — starting with the fact that a basketball team is just five guys, and thus cheap to produce. Occasionally Beane is too clever, as when Lysistrata makes a (very good, probably irresistible) joke with the name of Amelia Earhart as its punchline — though the character we’ve seen is unlikely ever to have heard of the lost aviatrix. Still, there’s room here for a smart, sassy cast to have plenty of fun, and to keep the script topical (like Lysistrata’s equally unlikely, equally funny reference to Kim Jong-il) and fresh.

A little learning: Lysistrata shares a plot from Aristophanes.
Left to right: Sharnell, Nejat, Murin, Boren, Chambers.

There’s a message about personal courage, and giving up the things that hold you back, but nothing heavy: the real purpose of this show is to provide a good time, with peppy songs and, above all, lively choreography by the director, Dan Knechtges. So much of Broadway dancing reminds me of cheerleading moves, so I wasn’t surprised to see the link forged here: what did surprise me was Knechtges’ inventive use of basketball moves, and the unstoppable kinetic energy of the cast. LaQuet Sharnell (as Myrrhine) boasts the precision and grace of a prima ballerina — that she can sing, too, and damned well, seems almost too much to ask.

Lewis Flinn’s score breaks down to a mere 13 numbers in the playbill, yet the show is almost through-composed, which really keeps things zipping along. (I was amazed to realize how long Act I really is.) Even when Flinn kicks out one of the harder-rocking numbers, the songs remain feather-light; while listening, I thought one or two might prove memorable, and the fact that, today, I can’t remember a single melody doesn’t make them any less effective in context or exemplary in craftsmanship. I’d willingly buy the cast album, if there is one, and I daresay I’d play it from time to time. The catch is that this show simply doesn’t boast the one or two surefire hit songs that might have drawn a bigger crowd.

Play ball! Knechtges’ choreography keeps the whole show aloft.

The producers mitigated some of the pleasure of Lysistrata Jones by overmiking Flinn’s score. There are several powerful voices onstage here, including those of Sharnell, Patti Murin (as Lysistrata), and Liz Mikel (as the muse/madam Hetaira). But where’s the excitement of being in a room with a woman with a great voice when the amps are cranked up to the point you can barely understand her lyrics? Mikel’s voice is not only strong but big, yet the sound designer, Tony Meola, threw in a reverb for many of her numbers: we might as well have been listening with an ear trumpet to a computer in a well. That’s not the effect an intimate show like this should have been aiming for.

Murin is another multiple-threat performer who sings and dances and looks delicious, and she managed the tricky feat of making Lysistrata dumb yet appealing, funny yet sympathetic, too. As her boyfriend, Josh Segarra was up to something similar, with just a suggestion of John Travolta’s Vinnie Barbarino to help convey the sweetness beneath the swaggering. His big ballad, crooned in his upper register, was undermined by overmiking, another victim of the sound design.

Battle of the sexes: Segarra and Murin face off.

Part of the fun of the show is watching several couples — all of whom seem like matched sets — wind up with unexpected partners. You fully expect that Robin (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) and Xander (Jason Tam), the brainiest kids on campus, will pair off; the next-brainiest characters, Sharnell’s Myrrhine and Ato Blankson-Wood’s elegant Tyllis, seem almost the same person, black kids baffled by the street-talkin’ non-blacks around them. Myrrhine and Tyllis seem destined for each other, but Beane’s script holds a few surprises in store.

For example, Xander, who’s underused in Act I, really blossoms in Act II, especially given Tam’s performance, which in an earlier Broadway era would be star-making. He’s like a cross between Johnny Galecki and John Leguizamo and yet wholly original. (His dance numbers are at once clumsy-looking and gorgeous, and very funny.) Along similar lines, the small role of Harold (Teddy Toye) all but disappears in the background until his big moment, near the end of the show.

Stars of tomorrow? In Broadway's heyday, Murin and Tam
might be household names already.

Beane’s script opts for many, many easy laughs through the use of stereotypes, and here his lack of ambition — of wit — is especially disappointing. He deserves kudos for setting up a multi-culti cast, but ultimately he doesn’t do much with the characters most of them play.

Hetaira is nothing but a bundle of tired ideas about big black ladies and heart-of-gold hookers — though you hardly mind while the charismatic Mikel is onstage. The Latin couple (Kat Nejat and Alexander Aguilar) continually remind us that they’re Latin, but there’s no real payoff, and precious little wordplay, even, in the Spanglish that Nejat almost unintelligibly deploys. Fly-for-a-white-boy Cinesias (Alex Wyse) makes a furtive attempt to transcend the stereotypes, yet by the time the show’s over, Beane lets him (and us) down. Beane forgot to write anything at all for Lampito (Katie Boren), the Tina Chang of this show.

Hetaira shares her wisdom, because what else
would a sassy black woman do in a Broadway musical?

Make no mistake, however: while some characters are written better than others, all the actors are tremendously appealing, and Lysistrata is a terrific showcase for them. Cute, sexy, and high-spirited, they sing and dance their hearts out, and I look forward to seeing every one of them again, soon and often. I had a good time, and overall Lysistrata Jones is a sturdy vehicle.

That said, it’s easy enough to see what went wrong here. With a cast of 12 non-famous actors and an “orchestra” of seven, and with a script larded with smartass references to Classical and pop cultures, the show belongs where it began, in regional theater companies and offbeat venues — such as gymnasia. Before any of those future players and producers can hear about your show, however, you’ve got to run on Broadway. The gamble was necessary, but it was a gamble.

Show me the money: This is as glitzy as Moyer’s set design gets.
(That’s not saying it isn’t effective.)
Lysistrata and the girls prepare to teach the boys a lesson.
Costumes by David C. Woolard & Thomas Charles LeGalley.

After all, ticket prices at the Walter Kerr break down to roughly $10 per actor and musician, and the set (by Allen Moyer) and staging — fun as they are — look as if they’re still in a gymnasium. There’s simply no way, even given the legendary (or urban-legendary) demands of theater unions, that this show cost very much to produce. And yet audiences were expected to pay as much (or nearly) for the unknown Lysistrata Jones as they’d pay for the more eye-popping, densely populated, and comfortably familiar Mary Poppins or Phantom of the Opera.

Lysistrata Jones nearly pulled off the trick, which is why I’m absolutely certain that the show will live on. Word of mouth was mostly excellent, and the review in the New York Times might have been written in electric ink, so glowing it was. Plucky producers with energetic actors are going to produce this show — and when it comes your way, I daresay you’ll have a good time.

Some of the illustrations come from the off-Broadway production,
at the Gym at Judson. I can hardly tell which are which.

*NOTE: The correct equivalent for war is rugby — as everyone knows.

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