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NEW YORK – Location, location, location. When it premiered Off-Broadway early this summer in a site-specific production on a Greenwich Village gymnasium basketball court, Lysistrata Jones had a scrappy attitude and energy that were impossible to resist. Hustled uptown in a rushed transfer onto a traditional Broadway stage, this contemporary musical riff on the bawdy Aristophanes sex comedy from 411 B.C. shows signs of strain.
That doesn’t mean the show’s entertainment value has been erased. But its more insubstantial qualities are magnified, demonstrating that commercial transfers are rarely an automatic slam-dunk.
Shifting the action of Aristophanes’ play from the Peloponnesian War to all-American Athens U., where the guys’ basketball team is on an unbroken losing streak, the show was never West Side Story. But it has a peppy if generic score by Lewis Flinn that dips capably into a range of pop genres. The bigger asset is a genuinely funny book by Douglas Carter Beane, the playwright who subversively revamped Xanadu for the stage, fortified Sister Act en route to New York, and has signed on to overhaul Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, which is aiming for Broadway next season.
Appalled at the complacency of the boys, who have no issue with being athletic underachievers so long as they get to keep partying, new girl in school Lyssie Jay (Patti Murin) whips together a cheerleading squad. When that fails to motivate them on the court, she convinces the girls that withholding sex is just the incentive needed to make the team start winning. The appealing, ethnically assorted crew includes Lysistrata’s boyfriend Mick (Josh Segarra), a jock with the soul of a poet; feminist slam poetess Robin (Lindsay Nicole Chambers); and political blogger Xander (Jason Tam).
Overseeing the action as their romantic affiliations get reshuffled and their secret selves blossom is Hetaira, a solo Greek chorus who occasionally offers her counsel as madam of the Eros Motor Lodge and expert in matters of sexual warfare. A whole lot of fabulousness in her ample flesh and flowing robes, Liz Mikel goes from playing the hardworking mama of Smash Williams on Friday Night Lights to a hot mama of a less earthbound breed in her Broadway debut.
While Murin is perhaps not quite the dynamic central force needed for a show about finding your driving passion, the cast of mostly unknowns maintains the freshness and vigor they brought to the production downtown, where it was presented by the Transport Group. The same goes for director-choreographer Dan Knechtges, whose spirited staging of the basketball games is appropriately athletic. The most significant changes are the acquisition of a few extra musicians and added wattage in the lighting.
But some unquantifiable essence has been sacrificed, and the fault lies less with the cast or creative team than with the producers. They might have benefited from studying a show like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as an example. That 2005 musical, which was choreographed by Knechtges, moved to Broadway with its underdog charms intact. In fact, it enhanced them in an environmental staging that transformed the Circle in the Square into an average American middle school.
While that venue was unavailable this season, the Walter Kerr Theatre proves especially unaccommodating to the sports action of Lysistrata Jones. The show gained excitement downtown because the audience was literally courtside in bleachers. With the cast now stuck on a wide, shallow stage considerably elevated from the audience, the frisson of contact is lost. And without that, the characters seem smaller, their conflicts less engaging.
This material should be connecting directly with young audiences who graduated from High School Musical to Glee. But there’s also something lacking in a marketing campaign that contains no defined message as to the kind of show this is or the core demographic it aims to attract. Unfortunately, those questions have been echoing loud and clear in the production’s dismal grosses through previews. Like last season’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which was a smash downtown but a tough sell on Broadway, all signs point to a short semester for Lysistrata Jones.
Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Patti Murin, Josh Segarra, Liz Mikel, Jason Tam, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Alexander Aguilar, Ato Blankson-Wood, Katie Boren, Kat Nejat, LaQuet Sharnell, Teddy Toye, Alex Wyse
Music and lyrics: Lewis Flinn
Book: Douglas Carter Beane
Director-choreographer: Dan Knechtges
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designers: David Woolard, Thomas Charles LeGalley
Lighting designer: Michael Gottlieb
Sound designer: Tony Meola
Music director: Brad Simmons
Orchestrations and arrangements: Lewis Flinn
Presented by Paula Herold, Alan Wasser, Joseph Smith, Michael McCabe, John Breglio, Takonkiet Viravan/Scenario Thailand, Hilary A. Williams, Broadway Across America, James G. Robinson, in association with Tony Meola, Martin McCallum, Marianne Mills
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