At first I was slightly thrown off course by the froth and seeming frivolity of "Lysistrata Jones" a musical that moved from a smaller Off-Broadway venue and the Judson gymnasium by way of The Dallas Theater Center. I kept thinking, looking, and cogitating attempting to find the raison d’être in this production with music and lyrics by Lewis Finn.
In order to parse my reticence to enjoy the fun, I share this: I had seen Samuel Beckett’s "Krapp’s Last Tape" at BAM the night before. A revelatory solo performance by John Hurt in what is surely Becket’s most personal and revealing work. It was a triumph. One man, a tape recorder, a simple table, closely focused lighting and some bananas directed insightfully by Michael Colgan of the Gate Theater in Dublin. I was gob smacked for the entire piece and admit the mindset of Beckett lingered with me.
Curtain up the following evening on, "Lysistrata Jones" at the Walter Kerr Theater. There there were no house lights to half, no long foreplay to begin, only a bump to bright lights and a stomping, slamming band and the vision of an African-American Amazonian goddess in a gold lame bra, size, oh, maybe 50 double H and a voice equally as large and compelling. Thank you Liz Mikel! And we were off. It took me until the second act to recalibrate my senses for pure joy and to detect the simple messages within the kingdom of musical theater.
And in such a kingdom the players of course act, sing their hearts out, and dance some very complicated basketball-themed moves, well conceived by Dan Knechtges, who also directed the show. The players are all wildly young and talented. This is a very loose reworking of Aristophanes’ play from 411, called simply "Lysistrata", an account of one woman’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War.
Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges -- or as they call them in this modern version, "giving it up" -- from their husbands and lovers as a means of forcing the men to negotiate peace. In the hands of writer Douglas Carter Beane, this becomes " Good god/ we got / a sex jihad."
So you can see that Aristophanes’ premise is similar, but the means and energy are quite different. Here Athens is Athens U, a low-level safety school where it seems no one really aspires to much, including the basketball team, who is enjoying an extended losing streak and doesn’t even want to try.
The team captain, Mick, played and sung well by the very cute Josh Segar, is the leader of lethargy and the sweetheart of Lysistrata Jones, a tiny blond with pipes for days, Patti Murrin. We learn that Lysi had to transfer because her parents became mired in the debt meltdown -- one of the many times the creative team brings in the tweaks of modern social criticisms and sometimes witticisms as well. There are references to iPhones, texting to save the day, finding a prostitute by asking Siri, and Newt Gingrich’s account at Tiffany.
The cast is wonderfully multi-culti, featuring Alex Wyse as a Jewish boy who says that Todd is his slave name and insists on being called Cinesias, until the end when we discover his real name is Tevia. There is a nerd, Xander, who comes out of his virtual computer world to be the mascot, a Trojan complete with skirt and helmet, played with pathos and fancy footwork by Jason Tam. By the end the two players, who have dubbed each other Batman and Robin, come out and embrace to the applause of the cast and audience.
Lysi spends most of the play attempting to motivate the team to win a game; at least she wants them to want to win. She enlists the team’s female entourage plus the bright school library intern, the wonderful, curly redhead, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, whose pert body is endlessly referenced and sung about by her suitor.
The girls in return sing, "No more giving it up until you give up giving up". A tad clumsy, but the sentiment is there. In fact many of the lyrics were far from lyrical, but there were many crude jokes, snide asides, and echoed guffaws. In the end, the real lesson for me was the importance to inspire and find the passion to overcome hetero-normative stereotypes and unearth "the angels of our hope."
When I exited and made my way to the subway, I found I couldn’t recall a single musical thru line and was more drawn to a trombone player’s rendition of "Amazing Grace" echoing in the cavern. But still, I left uplifted by the power of hope and the talent of a young cast celebrating a Broadway show during the holiday season.
"Lysistrata Jones" enjoys at extended run at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. For info or tickets call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.lysistratajones.com/