Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 14, 2011
Lysistrata Jones Book by Douglas Carter Beane. Music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn. Directed and choreographed by Dan Knechtges. Scenic design by Allen Moyer. Costume design by David C. Woolard & Thomas Charles LeGalley. Lighting design by Michael Gottlieb. Sound design by Tony Meola. Hair design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer. Orchestrations & arrangements by Lewis Flinn. Cast: Patti Murin, Josh Segarra, Jason Tam, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, featuring Alexander Aguilar, Ato Blankson-Wood, Katie Boren, Kat Nejat, LaQuet Sharnell, Teddy Toye, Alex Wyse, and Liz Mikel.
So relentless is this show in its meaninglessness, in fact, that it makes Beane's previous bubble-gum tuner, Xanadu, seem as emotionally resonant as The Iceman Cometh. Neither librettist Beane, composer-lyricist Flinn, nor director-choreographer Dan Knechtges has provided a single reason to justify the rampant, haunting emptiness that is masquerading as a free-for-all musical comedy. They simply unleash it, polished to a migraine-inducing gleam, apparently in hopes that by saying nothing it will speak for itself. Needless to say, it doesn't work.
That's a shame, too, because shifting to contemporary America Aristophanes's classic comedy about women withholding sex in order to compel their men to stop fighting the Peloponnesian War is not an inherently bad idea. Though raucous and ribald, the original made enough passionately serious points about human nature to inspire endless expansions and elaborations. The women could band together to bring peace to the Middle East, for example. Or a D.C. power broker could end Republican-Democrat economic stalemates so the country could finally balance the budget and live within its means. For a country centered on the concept of excess, it's a wide-open field.
Yet Beane, who with plays like The Little Dog Laughed has proven himself capable of tackling real-world concerns with both adroit humor and lacerating insight, has touched on nothing substantive whatsoever. Here, the title character (played with saucy verve by Patti Murin) is a recent college transfer student to Athens University who convinces her compatriots on the cheerleading squad to keep their legs closed until their boyfriends on the basketball team (the Spartans) manage to win a game and break their 33-year losing streak. And... oh wait, there is no "and." That's the beginning and the end of the plot.
However you slice it, that's not enough. Throughout modern Broadway history, the most successful musical comedies have always been solidly anchored. Fiddler on the Roof by religious devotion and the havoc time wreaks on it; Hello, Dolly! by the loss and despair of losing a spouse and struggling to find a way to move on; My Fair Lady by class differences; The Music Man by personal redemption; Guys and Dolls by the mythic interplay and attraction between good women and bad men; and on and on. Even Oklahoma!, frequently dismissed as being about which of two guys takes a girl to a picnic, questions whether the American ideal of constantly quibbling ideologies can unite against a common foe — as stirring a statement about World War II as the theatre made during it.
Most of the other choices are equally arbitrary. The goddess Hetaira (Liz Mikel) leading a ritualistic chorus incantation in the opening montage does not impart historical gravitas any more than Mick being a closet Walt Whitman freak (which makes it helpful for him to romance slam-poetry devotee Robin, played by Lindsay Nicole Chambers) establishes artistic authenticity. It's not clear exactly how left-wing-activist blogger Xander (Jason Tam) gets dragged into all this, aside from Beane needing him to round out the love story. The presence of two secretly gay players on the team and one (Alex Wyse) who's a white guy who talks like a black guy likewise contribute nothing more than familiar fluff.
Flinn's songs aren't weighty, either, and don't explore feelings deeper than the visceral thrills sports elicit without trying. At least their melodies are generally pleasing to the ear on the occasions the lyrics properly rhyme and can be discerned through Tony Meola's acceptable but overloud sound design. But the lack of dramatic build and shape does them no favors, and causes the numbers to blend together by about the middle of Act I.
The performances are of the jittery, hard-sell variety that only provides extra throb to what is already a candy-colored headache. No one pushes more than Segarra, who mugs continuously and relies on silly vocal tics to communicate Mick's state of mind, though Wyse and Alexander Aguilar, as the token Latino on the team, come close. Tam, who comes closest to underplaying (in the only role that should be over the top, but no matter) and the women fare better. Mikel is a buxom force of nature hampered only by her part's negligibility, and Murin almost locates layers in Lysistrata's behavior. Everyone sings powerfully and executes Knechtges's athletic dance moves with surging brio.
But that kineticism can't compensate for everything that's missing. Since the show's premiere Off-Broadway last spring, Allen Moyer's gymnasium-styled sets, David C. Woolard and Thomas Charles LeGalley's garish costumes, and Michael Gottlieb's stadium-like lights have received a few impactful upgrades. Tweaks to nearly everything else have been minor, and keep the show bereft of the heft needed for it to register as anything. Nothing, alas, is a difficult foundation, especially without the tried-and-true rules of musicals or the millennia-proven soul of the first Lysistrata to help support it. Aristophanes got things right and real 2,400 years ago, so it's hardly a surprise that his play still feels fresh, free, and funny in a way that Lysistrata Jones unequivocally doesn't.