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Thursday, December 15, 2011

REVIEW: Lysistrata Jones

Review of the December 3 matinee preview performance at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway in New York City.  Starring Patti Murin, Josh Segarra, Liz Mikel, Jason Tam and Lindsay Nicole Chambers.  2 hours, 30 minutes including intermission.  Based on the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes.  Book by Douglas Carter Beane.  Music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn.  Direction and choreography by Dan Knechtges.  Adult themes, sexual content.


Grade: A


Part old school sex farce (think Boeing Boeing), part modern day meta musical (think an even smarter Xanadu), part old-fashioned musical comedy with a dirty streak (think A Funny Thing...Forum) and part crowd-pleasing guilty pleasure (think Mamma Mia with a brain) and you get Lysistrata JonesBroadway's newest musical.  If the Disney Channel aired adult-themed after hours programming, this hilarious romp would certainly be showing regularly.  It is that blend of child-like exuberance and naughty "wink-wink-nudge-nudge" almost-dirty titillation that makes this very funny musical take off.  But it is the smart humor coupled with a sincerity of purpose that gives this energetic musical its heart.

A joy to behold when it opened off-Broadway last summer, the show is even better with its move up town.  (read my review of the earlier production HERE).  The book by Douglas Carter Beane is even more hilarious, with characters clarified, plot points no longer left dangling, and its finger still firmly on the pulse of current American pop culture - references to Siri, iPads and the latest political scandal abound - and one senses that the game cast is ready to update the script at a moments notice and a quick read of USA Today online.  Yes, the script is tighter and virtually fat free.  It also continues to be smart without being haughty, and pokes fun at anything and everyone, but without a truly mean bone in its irreverent body.  And the score, by Lewis Flinn, on second hearing is even more of a riot than before.  A mix of hip hop, rap, modern pop and an homage to Broadway style musical numbers that never once calls to mind tap dancing chorines or jazz hands, the score feels very much like what you might hear on the radio these days.  Of course, this a blessing and a curse - the songs get your feet tapping and your mind scrambles to learn the cleverest of the clever lyrics, and you will definitely leave humming the finale, "Give It Up!".  But the time honored tradition of pop music also dictates that like the breezy fluff it is, when you don't hear it over and over, recalling how it goes will prove difficult.  Of course (and please don't email me to death over this) the same can be said for the score to The Book of Mormon, Lysistrata's closest relative on the main stem.  Be honest, if you don't have the CD, can you hum a single tune from that score that wasn't on the Tony Awards?  I didn't think so.

It's guys vs. girls at Athens U.

And all the nasty naysayers of the Internet, who have been sharpening their claws since previews began, will be shocked to learn that, in fact, last season's Best Musical, and this season's best musical so far, have a lot in common.  Both have a razor sharp wit; both require a certain level of intelligence to be understood, let alone enjoyed; both have expertly written books with intriguing characters, plots and subplots that twist and turn; and both have superb casts that understand the complete picture and how to deliver the special, specific brand of comedy that these shows demand.  And, yes, they both have a heart and a serious, but not weighty point.  That the basis of Lysistrata Jones is a play that predates Jesus Christ by a good 500 years give or take, and STILL is relevant, tells you that there is something there.  True, setting the show in the world of college basketball and cheerleading isn't quite the same as taking a stand against war.  But it is delightful that the lack of sex can bring a grown man to a halt, be it on the battlefield or regulation court.  The most immediate and real warrior to most Americans could just be the college athlete.  And so we have another musical that guys can go to and not feel embarrassed, right?

Despite the abundance of jocks and babes, some real basketball action and plenty of dirty humor, Lysistrata Jones aims a little higher.   The real fun of the show is the discovery of what really makes each of these characters tick.  Of the guys on the Athens University Basketball Team, which one is a poet, a bookworm with Ivy League aspirations, a sweetheart with a superhero complex, or a quick-witted Jewish mama's boy?  And of those girls, which is really smart in a practical way, which secretly longs to be a part of the very group she seems to disdain, and which will find out she is more accepting of differences than she ever thought possible?  For amid the stereotypical characters - the vacant, dumb jock, the perky blonde cheerleader, the bookish social outcast, and the bitchy funny girl with a political agenda among them - a couple of hours with these folks reveals the real truth about humanity.  And that truth is what elevates the musical and makes its source a timeless classic.  No one is exactly what they seem on the outside, and one only gets to understand their fellow man and themselves fully when circumstances force all to see beneath the surface.  That is true on the stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre, and it is true in life.

No matter how much he argues, Lyssie J isn't giving it up to Mick

Just as the book and score have been sharpened up, so too has the staging by director/choreographer Dan Knechtges.  Mostly out of necessity, much of the staging has taken a more side to side look and feel, whereas in the gym setting, much of the staging was almost in 3D.  That is to say in the gym, we sat at the end zone, so much of the basketball staging came right at us.  Now in a traditional theatre setting, we are on the sidelines watching it all happen.  While the gym had its appeal, certainly, and especially at "crucial" moments in the final game when the team, charging the basket, came right at us, the farcical and satirical tone of the piece, plus the out of this world component (namely a Greek goddess as narrator) somehow seems to play better with us observing rather than participating directly in the action.  Knechtges has come up with some ingenious ways to change perspectives within the basketball sequences that makes them as thrilling and exciting to watch as ever.  And the silliness of the simple set changes are easier to accept and are somehow less jarring, but just as clever before in the proscenium setting, too.  Best of all, though, his athletic, frenzied and complex dances - everything from Broadway to break-dancing to basketball and cheerleading infusion -  look even better on a traditional stage. (He is assisted here by Jessica Hartman.)  The entire piece now moves with a slick, clean orderliness that allows the show to keep moving without allowing the audience even the briefest moment of pause.  His staging of the book scenes melds so perfectly with the dance numbers that every scene now shines and builds to the emotional apex of the show at the end of the first act, and continues to builds to the breathtaking marathon of a finale.  Along the way, he has really sharpened the theatrical jewel of the second act, the extended song-dance-scene, "Right Now Operetta," which, as its title suggests, is a small musical within the musical, taking its place immediately among such similarly amazing pieces as "Springtime for Hitler" from The Producers and "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" from The Book of Mormon.  And Broadway hasn't had as fun a finale sequence since Xanadu.  It is one toga party you'll have to see to believe.

The guys have their moves down!

Creatively, and, again, out of necessity the design elements had to be addressed to fit the show on a traditional stage.  As before, the band sits above the action, and it reminds me of my college gym, where a second floor running track circled the first floor courts and seating area.  And Allen Moyer's set places us right in the middle of an old college gym, utilitarian, with its towering walls of beige brick and a ceiling full of ropes and other gym stuff, while the movable multi-purpose locker banks give the setting a theatricality.  And underneath it all, with its sheer size it suggests somehow an arena where decades of warriors have done battle.  The lighting design by Michael Gottlieb has also been improved significantly, with some cool effects added for the dreamier sequences and a wall of stadium lights to give us that stadium/athletic feel, while also being very theatrical.  And the costumes by David C. Woolard and Thomas Charles LeGalley have been spiffed up, particularly for the finale and the "girls go militant" sequence.  All of these design upgrades only improve what came before and make the adjustment from small gym to large theatre easier and more theatrical than ever.

(Left to right) Kat Nejat,  Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Patti
Murin, LaQuett Sharnell, Katie Boren
The Power of No!

The cast, like the show, has also tightened into a well-oiled machine, with amazing timing, blistering delivery and an energy that overflows into the audience.  The entire cast from off-Broadway was transplanted here, and we are all the better for it.  The young women who join Lysistrata in her crusade to get the boys to winning and caring about something are doing terrific work.  Kat Nejat has found an even thinner line to walk between Latina stereotype and unique young woman.  The result is roaringly funny line delivery and smooth, sassy moves that seduce the audience as much as her intended.  Similarly, Katie Boren cleverly sidesteps a stereotypical Asian girl, and presents us with a mind of her own young woman, race unnoted.  And LaQuet Sharnell  is a real wonder, who at first goes by pretty much in the background.  But as her part in the plot grows, you marvel at her attention to details - everything from a more reassured strut in her step to a jaunty way of fixing her hair with an "I dare you" look of challenge, a crooked smile and devilish toss of the head.  Her act two duet, "Don't Judge a Book" is a show-stopper and laugh 'til you cry moment.

(Left to right) Ato Blankson-Wood, Alex Wyse, Josh
Segarra, Alexander Aguilar and Teddy Toye

Of course, what would a battle of the sexes be without some formidable competition on the male side?  Ato Blankson-Wood has some of the show's best lines as Tyllis, the misunderstood and hen-pecked guy on the team.  Suave and slick, without getting too slimy is 'Uardo, played with a Latin arrogance and generous wink to the audience by Alexander Aguilar.  What makes his performance nice is that he plays the stereotype of the strong Latin male to the hilt, and knows the whole time that we are aware that he isn't that arrogant or womanizing.  And there is curly haired Teddy Toye whose natural aw shucks look of innocence works to play us like a fiddle, making the revelation about his character all the more fun to experience.  He is also fun to watch in the background - he is always on and with a nice intensity.  Finally, there is Alex Wyse who plays his white-kid-trying-to-be-urban-rapper/Eminem wanna be with such a vigor, his energy pours off the stage and you can't help but smile at him.  He has the good fortune of sharing that act two duet with Ms. Sharnell and they are perfectly matched.

In a class by herself is Liz Mikel, who plays the Grecian narrator and the madame of a brothel with a sass and Mother Earth charm.  She winks knowingly at the audience and feigns extreme emotions then smiles at us as if to say, "This is just a lot of fun, folks! Lighten up and enjoy the ride!"  A rather buxom woman of a larger size (think pre-diet Queen Latifah), she knows how to put every inch of her body to maximum sexy use and all with the ferocity of Tina Turner.  She makes quite an impression.  So, too, does Jason Tam, who comes on like a radical you want to avoid, but reveals a sweet, benevolent side.  His number, "Hold On," a charming dance of ballet, Pilates and Grecian urn style movements, is funny and heartfelt.  And, ultimately, his character's plot twist is a doozy.  A satisfying doozy!

Liz Mikel
Patti Murin and Jason Tam


Lindsay Nicole Chambers, with her fire red curls and her way with a sarcastic line, reminds me of a nicer Kathy Griffin.  Her bark is as loud as Griffin's, but her bite is somewhat kinder.  Still, I wouldn't mess with her Robin.  Chambers gives this strong slam poetess one hell of a backbone.  But there is a true sense of humor that both emboldens this library assistant and softens her.  In fact it is that glimpse or two of Robin's warmth that makes her journey from social outcast to "one of the girls" believable and completely enjoyable.  You root for her, loving her when she goes on attack and cheering her on when she finds her bliss.  And where she finds that is one of the many joys of this show.

Josh Segarra

With matinee idol looks and a smile that could charm the skin off a snake, Josh Segarra is making a terrific Broadway debut.  As the dim, somewhat vacant captain of the team, Mick, Segarra manages to be "da man to his boyz," the chick magnate, and decent jock all at once.  He has created a surface for this character that pays homage to the stock "dumb jock," without ever really being dumb.  He is passionate about keeping his team happy, macking on the ladies and about a more secret side to his personality (I'm not telling!).  It is a real testament to Segarra's grasp of the character that we can fully believe each diverse part of the man Mick is.

Patti Murin as Lysistrata Jones (center)
and the Company

Finally, as the title character, Lysistrata Jones, Patti Murin is making a star-turn.  She is bringing a shrewdly nuanced character to the stage, managing to be all things to all people, even if that turns out to be her character's downfall.  Murin comes on like gang busters and never stops.  Her energy is both contagious and exhausting - you'll want to offer her a bottle of water on many occasions.  And she plays each tiny facet of her role to the hilt, be it the somewhat dumb girl people expect her to be as a blonde cheerleader, or the tech savvy street smart gal with an iPhone in one hand and her laptop in the other.  She knows how to be the captain of the team's girl, and she knows her weakness - she desperately wants the approval of others, and even more so, wants people to commit to and believe in something.  The role really requires a quadruple threat, and in Ms. Murin, they have found one.  She has a powerful belt, a sweet singing voice, she can act like nobody's business and she is a great dancer.  Add to that a knack for cheerleading moves and decent skills with a basketball, and it is easy to see why she is the complete package.

The Finale - "Give It Up!"

The Cast of Lysistrata Jones

In truth, like Ms. Murin and her title character, the show is the complete package.  It is interesting, slick and tuneful.  It is full of characters we think we know and grow to love.  Its themes are universal, and is thoroughly musical in all senses of the word.  It has a vibrant, youthful cast, as smart as the script they were given and as natural individually as they are as one amazing cast.  There are those who like their musicals with some weight to them, and this show has that aspect to it.  It has to "say something."  I think theatergoers can make room in their hearts for silly fun and seriousness.  Let yourself go and enjoy the ride at Lysistrata Jones.  You will leave smiling.  And these days, if that doesn't "say something," I don't know what does.

(Broadway production photos by Joan Marcus)


DISCLAIMER: I have not, nor will I ever receive any form of compensation from anyone associated with Lysistrata Jones.  I attended a performance BEFORE I was approached to interview Ms. Chambers and Mr. Segarra, and I paid for my ticket, albeit at a discounted price - a discount available to anyone in the general public.


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Jeff

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