Do they give Tony Awards for best abs? If so, there's really only one clear winner so far this season – "Lysistrata Jones."
The Douglas Carter Beane-written musical, which opened Wednesday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, features a locker room worth of muscular guys and girls, all dancing in tank-tops, cheerleader skirts or even less. The musical itself, though, needs some more time in the gym.
While no theatrical air ball, "Lysistrata Jones" isn't a slam dunk, either. It's got terrific songs by Lewis Flinn and an energetic cast, but the book is too derivative, a few of the actors seem overmatched, the choreography from Dan Knechtges is merely serviceable, and there aren't enough killer jokes.
Beane – whose play, "The Little Dog Laughed," earned a Tony nomination and who also wrote the cult movie "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" – stumbles somewhat with this updating of Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata."
Beane has taken the 2,400-year-old comedy about Athenian women withholding sex until their men stop fighting and plopped it to present day Athens College, where the basketball team hasn't won in decades.
Enter a troublemaking transfer student – Lysistrata Jones, played with winning spunk by Patti Murin – who creates a cheerleading squad and convinces all the girls to cease carnal favors until the team records a win. It's basically a sex strike – what appropriate timing against an NBA season stalled by a lockout.
"This losing streak is just an excuse to make everybody give up," says Lysistrata.
"We can't win, get it? What, you think I like losing? This is the hand we got dealt, OK? And we have to live with it," says the hunky basketball team captain and secret poetry lover, played with smarmy charm by Josh Segarra.
What ensues is like a cross between "Porky's" and pretty much every teen movie since "Porky's": Lots of misbehaving, sex jokes, a trip to a brothel, regret and then everyone reconstitutes in different combinations. The head cheerleader falls for the geeky guy, the captain of the basketball team falls for the awkward girl, a gay couple emerge, and everyone enjoys themselves at an end-of-game bacchanal.
Using these cliches, Beane has hidden a Trojan Horse, so to speak. His play reaches for a discussion of fatalism and free will, of the bravery it takes to stop the status quo and risk everything, and even perhaps of American exceptionalism. The trouble is that peeks of these larger themes are lost amid the raunch.
Beane has thrown up all kinds of jokey references, including making fun of Mel Gibson, PETA, the iPhone's digital assistant Siri, and Joel Schumacher. Some are a bit dated – Kitty Dukakis, anyone? – and some are so topical they seem forced, like Lysistrata's taunt to the boys: "By the time we're done doing our sexy new cheers, you'll be readier for sex than Newt Gingrich's wife after a trip to Tiffany's."
The songs pumped out by a seven-piece band above the stage, on the other hand, are really good, especially the slinky pop of "Lay Low," the beautiful "When She Smiles" and the funky "Hold On." Murin has just one chance to show off her pipes and she does so in the Act 1 torch song finale, "Where Am I Now."
Beane and Knechtges, who also directs, last worked together on the equally Greek-ish "Xanadu," which was just as silly and frothy and sarcastic, but somehow had a sharper edge. Beane shifts from arch to sincere but it's sometimes not clear which is being intended, as in the time one of his characters invokes the memory of Susan B. Anthony to stick with her dream.
In "Xanadu," Beane had a terrible movie to draw on. Here, he has conjured up all the typical stereotypes from many teen movies – and already heavily parodied in such films as "Not Another Teen Movie" – like the hot and fiery Latina bombshell, the glasses-wearing geeks, the sassy black mama, and the rich white kid who thinks he's ghetto. But he hasn't done much with these characters other than present them.
Most of the dozen cast members are quadruple threats – asked to dance, sing, act and shoot baskets on stage. That's no easy feat, but few triumph. Of the supporting cast, Lindsay Nicole Chambers reveals solid comic and physical timing, LaQuet Sharnell sings very well, but Jason Tam as Xander seems uncertain of himself. And Liz Mikel, with her fantastic voice and strong stage presence, keeps the show alive. Yet this buxom, funny woman is asked at one point to strip down to a bodysuit in a moment that seems exploitative.
It was all funnier – and perhaps unexpected – before: Earlier this year, the Transport Group presented "Lysistrata Jones" in a 99-seat basement church gymnasium in Greenwich Village. The unorthodox setting was perfect for the material.
Now in a 945-seat Broadway theater, it seems a difficult fit. Allen Moyer's sets are a mix of stripped-down – his moveable racks of lockers have come with him uptown – and trying-too-hard, like a glitter curtain and digital scoreboard. A wall of lights is put to good use but the show's visuals haven't really made the leap.
Maybe it's the jump to the pros that has rattled this show. When it was stumbled upon at Judson Memorial Church, there was a surprising jolt: The quality was really high in such an unusual place. But the show is now wilting under the white lights of Broadway and the air is seeping out of the ball.
In 411 B.C., Aristophanes wrote a comedy called "Lysistrata," about women refusing to have sex with their men until they negotiate an end to the war.
Seemingly dedicated to the inexplicable notion that we have no nasty wars on our bubbleheaded minds, Broadway lunges to fill that empty space with "Lysistrata Jones" -- a musical comedy about cheerleaders refusing to have sex until the college basketball team wins a game.
Don't get me started. I missed the upbeat show with the repugnant concept last summer when the Transport Group had a successful run with it downtown in a hip church gym. Transferred now to Broadway, the thing proves to be as trivializing and demeaning as it sounded. Worse -- in terms of entertainment, if not message -- this is also ludicrous, busy and unrelentingly dull.
The title character, aka Lyssie J., is played by Patti Murin with all the perkiness of Olivia Newton-John in a teensy skirt. She rallies her hard-partying female classmates at Athens U. to deny the frat-boy team their "woo" (I warned you) until a 32-year losing streak ends. In Douglas Carter Beane's witless script with its broad winks at Aristophanes, Lyssie means to make the guys passionate about something and, like Susan B. Anthony, no kidding, "change the world."
"If you are giving up, then I am not giving it up," goes one of Lewis Flinn's songs, which are all about the same thing because, face it, the show isn't about anything else. There is a lame nod toward two smart kids (Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Jason Tam) in the library, but they mostly get popular by acting as stupid as the in-crowd. When the smart girl makes a quip to the team captain-closet romantic poet (Josh Segarra), the fellow retorts, "Nothing is over my head because I am really tall."
Best (by which I mean worst) of all, the girls go "talk to a whore" to learn how to tease their apathetic men. The head hooker is Broadway's requisite large black woman (Liz Mikel), who also doubles as the high-decibel Greek chorus.
Director-choreographer Dan Knechtges keeps the energetic actors bumping, grinding and hip-hopping around the basketball-court set, where they also make a few baskets. This is not the same as making points.
“Lysistrata Jones” is a little musical with big energy that slam-dunks a mythic saga into a current-day college basketball setting.
Led by the titular take-charge cheerleader, plucky pom-pom girls vow not to have sex with their hoops-playing boyfriends until the guys win a game for a change.
In Aristophanes’ 411 B.C. original story, the nookie boycott was to prevent a war.
The story stakes have clearly changed, as have the show’s in its jump to Broadway.
Last summer, when the Transport Group presented the musical downtown at the no-frills Gym at Judson, it was a perfect silly seasonal treat. Like Popsicles — bubble-gum-flavored to match the light-as-helium, if repetitious, pop songs by Lewis Flinn.
Now, at the Walter Kerr, where it opened last night, the production conjures a schoolgirl tottering around in mom’s high heels:
It’s cute — for a while.
A main asset is the book by dependably witty Douglas Carter Beane (“The Little Dog Laughed,” “Xanadu”). He’s jammed it with jokes mining everything from iPhone’s “Ask Siri” and Newt Gingrich to ridiculous white boys who talk like black rappers. He’s also come up with the single funniest line on any stage. No spoiler, but after you hear it you’ll never see a certain Hostess treat the same way again.
But after a while (and long before the production maxes out its overindulgent two-hour-plus running time) a desire for something more substantial sets in.
At its best the show conveys the message that getting in touch with determination and desire are the secret to any success. But it also gets bogged down in characters who are all too familiar. Lyssie Jones (the animated Patti Murin) is a not-so-bright blond, her jock boyfriend Mick (a sweet-voiced Josh Segarra) is a poet at heart.
They and their pals, played by a talented supporting cast, set off been-there-before bells. Even Hetaira, a plus-sized eminence portrayed by the irresistible Liz Mikel, is now a garden-variety character device. You can’t combine so many cliches together and come up with something fresh.
On the winning side, director-choreographer Dan Knechtges surrounds “Lyssie J” in good-looking production and his high-impact dance numbers that make your heart rate climb just watching them. The plot is about not giving it up, but the cast always delivers 100%.
A lot of people whine that Broadway doesn’t know how to make entertaining musicals anymore.
Happily, it turns out that Broadway still knows how to make ’em. With its catchy pop score, charming cast, zippy staging and wickedly funny book, “Lysistrata Jones” is one of the season’s tastiest pieces of candy.
Sadly, it’s also one of the most underbuzzed.
Maybe it’s because the show doesn’t boast marquee names, unless you count book writer Douglas Carter Beane — the wit behind the similarly minded “Xanadu” and “Sister Act.”
Or maybe it’s because the marketing campaign is terrible.
If you’ve heard about “Lysistrata Jones” at all, chances are you’re still fuzzy about its subject. The TV commercial advertises a musical but doesn’t feature any songs or dancing, while a cheerleader natters on about ancient Greece and women’s mysterious powers. Huh?
Those familiar with Aristophanes’ 411 BC comedy “Lysistrata” will have an inkling of the plot: In both stories, women determined to get their way withhold sexual favors from their men.
In the ancient days, they tried to prevent war. At Athens University, circa now, the cheerleaders, led by the perky title character (Patti Murin), won’t let the losing basketball team score in the bedroom until they do on the court.
Or, as the girls sing: “No more givin’ it up till you give up givin’ it up.”
When the Transport Group first staged the show in June, it was in an actual West Village gymnasium, for about 100 people at a time. The move to a larger venue dilutes the production’s goofy appeal, but there’s still plenty left.
Landing halfway between “High School Musical” and the Lonely Island — the “Saturday Night Live” trio responsible for “Lazy Sunday” and “D - - k in a Box” — the musical is a breezy hoot expertly delivered by the dedicated, energized ensemble.
It’s hard to single out anybody onstage, though the imperial Liz Mikel deserves a shout-out for her dual turn as narrator Hetaira and the madam of the local brothel, the Eros Motor Lodge.
That inn of iniquity aside, “Lysistrata Jones” is less risqué than it is peppy and good-hearted.
Beane has things to say about not trusting appearances, and the importance of passionate engagement versus fear of commitment — whether to an ideal or to other people. But he never speechifies, preferring to lob snappy one-liners. Lysistrata, for instance, got her name because her parents “were on the fringe of society. They were theater majors.”
Composer Lewis Flinn keeps pace with appropriately fluffy songs that mix light R&B, bubblegum pop and loose hip-hop influences. The last are echoed in the dance moves cooked up by choreographer/director Dan Knechtges, who sets a fleet-footed pace overall.
So what’s “Lysistrata Jones” about, then? Girls, boys, love, basketball — and a classical good time.
That blond babe we fell in love with in June is still looking hot in the cold light of December.
When “Lysistrata Jones” — a musical about a determined cheerleader at a “less-than-competitive” college — opened for a limited run Off Broadway, it felt as appropriate for the silly season as a suntan-oil-smeared beach book. This giddy production by the Transport Group Theater Company, via the Dallas Theater Center (where it originated), even had a Top-40-style score (by Lewis Flinn) that suggested just what you wanted to listen to while lying on a towel in the sand.
So when it was announced that the show would be transported to Broadway, there were fears that “Lysistrata Jones” would meet the disenchanted end that often befalls resurrected summer romances. Bubbly little shows from small stages (the original for this production was a gym) tend to pop and evaporate in the open air of big houses.
Yet the production that opened on Wednesday night at the Walter Kerr Theater warrants not only sighs of relief but also at least a few lusty cheers. Directed and choreographed by Dan Knechtges, with a script by Douglas Carter Beane, “Lysistrata Jones” has been dressed up (and scaled up) real pretty for Broadway, bringing a heightened touch of summer sun and silliness to what has been an exceptionally gray season for musicals.
Adapted loosely (very loosely) from Aristophanes’ bawdy comedy “Lysistrata,” this tale of a losing basketball team and the women who try to energize it (by withholding sex from their athlete boyfriends) is a well-aimed throwback to a genre seldom seen these days. Though it is hard to believe in the era of angst-steeped shows like “Rent,” “Spring Awakening” and “American Idiot,” there was a time (or so I hear from the old ones at the bar at Joe Allen) when it was fun to be young in a Broadway musical.
“Lysistrata Jones” brings to mind the distant era of the college frolic “Good News” (1927) and “Babes in Arms” (1937), perishable good-time shows in which peppy kids delivered of-the-moment jokes and lively dances. (Such entertainments became less frequent after the arrival in 1957 of the blood-stained “West Side Story,” in which youth was tormented, complicated and no laughing matter.)
Not that “Lysistrata Jones” is entirely empty headed. Mr. Beane (“As Bees in Honey Drown,” “The Little Dog Laughed,” the book for the Broadway musical “Xanadu”) is a savvy, light-handed satirist, and in this show he gibes gently at the apathy of a generation that feels it was born to lose. As one frustrated character puts it: “Just once can I see someone make a passionate choice in this world? The only emotions that seem to incite action are fear, anger and resentment.”
That may sound kind of heavy, dude, but “Lysistrata Jones” is mostly pure helium. Its plot is sprung when its title character (the delightful Patti Murin), a recent transfer student to party-hearty Athens University, decides to put an end to the basketball team’s 33-year losing streak. Her “eureka” moment comes while reading the SparkNotes for “Lysistrata,” in which the women of ancient Athens force their warrior husbands to lay down their arms by refusing to have sex with them.
“Giving up giving it up” becomes the shibboleth of Lysistrata and the girlfriends of the other players. But the guys — led by Lysistrata’s hunky boyfriend, Mick (Josh Segarra), the team captain — resolve to remain eternally defeated on the court, even if it means buying companionship at the Eros Motor Lodge. After all, when you try to win, it hurts even more when you lose.
This standoff of the sexes is overseen by an earthy goddess narrator, Hetaira (the commanding Liz Mikel), who doubles as the madam of the local whorehouse and who dispenses ancient wisdom in the style of the divine Aretha (as in Franklin). Under her watchful seen-it-all gaze, couples break up, scatter, reassemble in new pairs, discover their true identities and, oh, yes, shoot some hoops.
The ensemble of “Lysistrata Jones” (which also includes the droll Lindsay Nicole Chambers as the resident intellectual) numbers only a dozen. But they have no problem filling Allen Moyer’s big multipurpose set, in which all the world is both a basketball court and an Attic amphitheater. (The scenic razzle-dazzle quotient has been increased for Broadway without strain.) David C. Woolard and Thomas Charles LeGalley’s costumes wittily extend that mixed then-and-now sensibility.
So does Mr. Knechtges’s choreography, which makes spirited use of basketball moves, the kinetics of cheerleading and a blissful evocation of ancient terpsichorean signage. That sequence is performed with antic grace by the gifted Jason Tam as Xander, a nerd who has lived most of his life with his head in a computer screen.
By the way, “Lysistrata Jones” makes the best use of any Broadway show to date of the dominance of the Internet in contemporary life. (You realize how differently many classic plays might have ended if texting and instant messaging had been available.)
Since Mr. Beane is involved, the cultural references here go well beyond the age of Apple though, and manage to embrace Bob Fosse, the film “Hustle & Flow,” Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Newt Gingrich and Joel Schumacher’s “Batman” movies. Mr. Flinn’s effervescent score makes reference to Motown, John Mayer-type ballads, “Glee”-like choral rousers and (how could it not?) Toni Basil’s cheerleading novelty hit, “Mickey.”
All the cast members effortlessly inhabit that happy dimension where cartoon is made flesh and vice versa. And Ms. Murin, who was just fine in the show last summer, has acquired real star shine. Ditsy and engagingly earnest, her Lysistrata belongs to the gallery of sharp-minded, soft-looking young blondes created on screen by Alicia Silverstone in “Clueless” and Reese Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde.”
Like those characters Lysistrata may at first seem deeply superficial. But it turns out there’s tasty substance beneath the froth, just enough to keep you hooked. The same may be said of the endearingly escapist show in which she appears.
Sex, gags and dunk shots mix in Douglas Carter Beane's "Lysistrata Jones," about a group of cheerleaders who decide to remain chaste to motivate their boyfriends on the Athens U. basketball team to put an end to the school's 33-year losing streak. This college-level "High School Musical" is layered with giddy and sometimes wicked sophistication, and its company of 12 delivers bright performances backed by energetically brisk staging in this sweetly silly romp. Auds will find it difficult to abstain from laughter.
The show is a direct descendant of Beane's earlier "Xanadu," but far superior to that show, and funnier than his other current Broadway musical, "Sister Act." Borrowing its plot from Aristophanes, "Lysistrata Jones" juxtaposes lowbrow popular entertainment with highbrow wit to deliver good-natured jabs at modern culture, mores and quirks as transfer student Lizzie (Patti Murin) convinces her squad, whose boyfriends are all on the court, to withhold the goods until they win.
The show at the Walter Kerr Theater is pretty much identical to the version mounted by the Transport Group last spring down on Washington Square, with one minor cast change. Beane has continued to update his script; there's a joke about Newt Gingrich at Tiffany's, and another in which the leading lady asks her iPhone's Siri about neighborhood brothels.
Performances have continued to grow. Murin makes an adorable and undefeatable Lizzie; Josh Segarra is likable as the dull basketball star who secretly spouts Frost and Dickinson; Lindsay Nicole Chambers is perfect as the librarian geek who communicates through poetry slams; and Liz Mikel is the big-voiced oversized Greek goddess who is the only adult in the house.
Funniest and most impressive is Jason Tam, who played the injured dancer Paul in the recent "Chorus Line." Here he is immensely droll as the computer geek Xander, giving a hysterical exhibition of eccentric dancing as he Googles the steps on his cellphone.
Helmer/choreographer Dan Knechtges, heretofore known in the latter role, keeps the show moving like a fluid basketball game, providing laffs along the way. Weakest link is the score by Lewis Flinn. The music is merely functional, in no way as tasty as the other elements; the lyrics have some bright spots, at least when they are not overamplified past audibility. This was something of a problem when the show played downtown on an actual basketball court at Judson Memorial Church, but the sound is unaccountably more garbled at the Kerr.