Lysistrata Jones -- Theater Review

Lysistrata Jones - Theater Still - 2011
Carol Rosegg
"Bring It On" meets "High School Musical" meets "Glee." In a good way.

The sassy new quasi-teen musical hails from composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn and book writer Douglas Carter Beane ("Sister Act").

NEW YORK – There's an obscene amount of fun being had in a church gymnasium on Washington Square South in Lysistrata Jones, a sassy new quasi-teen musical by composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn and book writer Douglas Carter Beane. The latter's ingenious reinvention of Xanadu was Broadway's giddiest surprise a few seasons back, and his sharp rewrite helped redeem Sister Act on its path to New York.

The show is an update on Aristophanes' bawdy comedy from 411 B.C., Lysistrata, in which the title character rallied the women of Ancient Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their men, thereby forcing them to negotiate a peaceful end to the Peloponnesian War.

The motives of Lysistrata's modern-day counterpart (Patti Murin) are less noble, but her commitment is no less passionate. A transfer student to Athens U., she dates Mick (Josh Segarra), the captain of the Spartans basketball team, which hasn't won a game in 30 years. Appalled that nobody seems to care, Lysistrata persuades her fellow cheerleaders to stop giving it up until the guys get their game on. "It's Your Duty: No More Booty" becomes the girls' mantra.

Off Broadway company the Transport Group, which specializes in site-specific shows, has found a perfect fit with a full-size gymnasium in the process of being converted to a performance space in the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. Presenting the show on an actual basketball court adds excitement to the sports sequences but also brings a more visceral dynamic to director-choreographer Dan Knechtges' highly athletic staging.

This could easily transfer to a commercial run in a more conventional Off Broadway space, become a popular touring show for young audiences, and also be a natural candidate for retooling as a screen property.

While the characters are at college, the cast is sufficiently young and fresh to pass for high-schoolers, and strictly speaking, this is the stage-musical equivalent of a teen comedy. Beane clearly knows his stuff in that area.

Clueless remains the benchmark for a teen pic teased out of classic literature, with its witty reinterpretation of Jane Austen's comedy of manners. But others such as 10 Things I Hate About You, which riffed on Shakespeare, have also struck a keen balance between honoring the original material's details while finding resourceful equivalent situations. More often, however, movies like Cruel Intentions and Easy A twist themselves into contrived knots trying to force-fit period-specific literary conceits onto contemporary models. Beane and Flinn keep it loose and make it look effortless.

They signal their approach from the outset as Hetaira raps, "Some play by Aristophanes/He's dead, so we do what we please/Something that's old and so arcane/So sue us, it's public domain." A luscious plus-size diva with a whole lot of voice, Liz Mikel's Hetaira is the show's one-woman Greek chorus, towering resplendently over the cute, ethnically assorted kids in her red and gold goddess-wear.

Despite the constant volley of sly topical references (Dominique Strauss-Kahn even sneaks in), raunchy double-entendres and snappy one-liners, a major virtue of Beane's writing here is that it doesn't try to be knowingly smarter than the characters. Nor does the material condescend to its audience. While it trades in familiar stereotypes it does so with amusing tweaks and contagious affection.

Unlike the standard popular girl, feisty Lysistrata is a not-so-dumb blonde who is willing to shake up the status quo with some radical action. Mick is a jock dreamboat who reads Robert Frost and quotes Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. Robin (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) is a brainy slam poetess in the fashion-challenged gender-studies tradition, but she's not above celebrating her acceptance into the cool clique. "Oh my God! I just used 'like' and not as a simile but as an odd verbal tick," she exclaims in a key crossover moment. And Xander (Jason Tam) is a left-wing blogger who needs to get his head out of his laptop and find a life.

While the eventual social shifts are pointedly telegraphed, there's a Shakespearian playfulness to the way the couples are either confirmed or reconfigured.

Latino Uardo (Alexander Aguilar) and his spitfire girlfriend Cleonice (Kat Nejat) are clearly destined to endure any conflict the story throws at them, as are African-American beauty Mhyrinne (LaQuet Sharnell) and Cinesius (Alex Wyse), a lily-white pseudo homeboy who's all posturing gangsta attitude. Asian Lampito (Katie Boren), on the other hand, seems merely part of the upward mobility package of black dude Tyllus (Max Kumangai). And the obsession of nerdy Harold (Teddy Toye) with superhero movies makes his true proclivities evident to the audience before they are to him.

Flinn's songs are catchy, dipping into a broad spectrum that covers pop, disco, hip-hop, rap, sports cheers and reggae. They tend toward the generic, with the ballads generally less effective than the upbeat numbers, but they do the job. The show might benefit from some streamlining, perhaps dropping a song or two and losing the intermission.

However, the performers are so winning it hardly matters. Knechtges' high-energy staging seems to be running on raging hormones and off-the-charts adrenaline. His choreography of the basketball games is especially vigorous, with Aguilar busting some wild old-school '80s breakdance moves at one point.

The show had a tryout last year at the Dallas Theater Center under the title Give It Up! which is also its Bacchanal toga-party closing number. The name change no doubt was prompted by its similarity to Bring It On, an obvious inspiration here and yet another movie on its way to becoming a stage musical. But Lysistrata Jones manages to invoke a whole gamut of popular teen fare while remaining a spirited original. The show scores on its own terms.

Venue: The Gym at Judson, New York (runs through June 19)
Cast: Patti Murin, Josh Segarra, Liz Mikel, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Jason Tam, Alexander Aguilar, Katie Boren, Max Kumangai, 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
Presented by Transport Group Theatre Company