Friday, December 16, 2011

Theater Review: Lysistrata Jones

By David

Lysisrata Jones, the new musical on Broadway that opened on Thursday, is quite possibly the most fun I've had in a theater in quite some time.  This is geniune, Grade A, frothy musical exhuberance.

First a warning:  If you want serious, genre-redefining musical theatre realism, do not under any circumstances see this show.  If, however, you are looking for sheer escapism, a cast chock full of talented eye candy of both genders, and don't mind a storyline that you can see a mile off (not that it matters), then run don't walk to the Walter Kerr Theatre and get your tickets.  Actually, I don't know why I said that.  Go on-line like everyone else and get your tickets.  But you know what I meant.

The musical is loosely based on the Greek comedy The Lysistrata by Aristophanes in which women endeavor to stop an endless war by withholding sex from the men of Athens.  Instead of war, here we have the basketball team of Athens University, captained by the hunky Mick (Josh Segarra), that has not won a game in decades, and their cheerleader counterparts, led by the spunky transfer student Lyssie J (Patti Murin) that decide to withhold sex until they do.

What makes this show tick, in addition to the winning performances that I will get to shortly, is the whip-smart book by Douglas Carter Beane that peppers the dialogue with contemporary references that appear to be updated hourly.  Especially in our modern age of instant news, it is dangerous to try and insert current events into a theater piece, as the shelf life is painfully brief.  But here the riffs on Twitter, the Kardashains and iPhones thankfully land with a bounce rather than a thud.  The lyrics don't always fair as well, as it is harder to update a song couplet than a one-liner.  Also, the cardinal sin of predictable rhymes sometimes comes to the fore.  But Lewis Flinn, the shows composer/lyricist, mostly keeps things fresh and his catchy, if not always memorable, tunes pop and sizzle in the ear and make the most of the wonderfully big sound that this cast generates.

So, about that cast.  Led by Murin and Segarra, who are charming, attractive and excellent comic performers, the tight group of eleven youngsters has a marvelous ensemble feel.  The other basketball team members are Alexander Aguilar ('Uardo), Ato Blankson-Wood (Tyllis), Teddy Toye (Harold) and Alex Wyse (Cinesias).  Filling out the cheerleader outfit (heh heh) are Katie Boren (Lampito), Kat Nejat (Cleonice) and LaQuet Sharnell (Myrrhine).  The two "outsiders" at the school are the brainy feminist (Robin) played by the phenomenal Lindsay Nicole Chambers, and the introverted activist (Xander) played by the brilliant Jason Tam.  If you haven't guessed, these two were my favorites.  Rounding out the cast is the diva-licious Liz Mikel as Hetaira, the goddess/muse/one-woman Greek chorus.

What really sells this show, in addition to the book, is the energy and talent of the cast.  I've singled a few out for high praise but there is not a dud among this crew.  The show's characters could easily fall into caricature, as on the surface they are all archetypes of some kind or other.  But the performers are deft with Beane's quips and give poignancy to their characters and the plights they encounter.  They are also indefatigable as they dance, shoot hoops and belt out the numbers. 

Of course, none of this would exist without the expert direction and choreography of Dan Knechtges.  The energy on the stage never lulls yet it is never manic.  The balance is always in check and Knechtges keeps you involved and drawn into the story.  He recognizes how to inject pathos without flattening the pace and the dance numbers, particularly the ones that incorporate basketball, are visual chocolate cake.  He is supported by a fabulous and extremely clever design team with sets by Allen Moyer, costumes by Thomas Charles LeGalley and David C. Woolard, lighting by Michael Gottlieb, and sound by Tony Meola.

This is joyous musical theater at its most infectious.  If you want to laugh yourself hoarse and leave the theater with a grin on your face, this is your show.

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