a theatre, film & pop culture review
The concept has serious comedic potential: Take Aristophanes’ bawdy political 411 BC comedy and transfer it to a contemporary college campus where the cheerleaders refuse to “give it up” until their b-ball guys stop giving up on the court. Unfortunately, Lysistrata Jones is just that: a funny concept that, as executed by Douglas Carter Beane (book), Lewis Flinn (music/lyrics) and Dan Knechtges (director/choreographer), does not a funny new musical comedy make.
Lysistrata Jones, a bubbly blonde transfer student (played with Elle Woods-like enthusiasm by Patti Murin), is tired of the lack of drive and overall commitment of her boneheaded boyfriend Mick (a humorously vapid Josh Segarra) and his teammates, so she puts together a cheering team to offer some motivation. When that doesn’t work, she convinces her fellow gal pals to take inspiration from her namesake and deny the boys sex until they shape up. But what is Lyssie really gaining from this self-inflicted abstinence? Aristophanes’ women denied themselves to promote peace and save lives by motivating their men to end the war, but Lysistrata has no real reason to care that the Spartans have been shamelessly rocking a 30-some-odd-year-long losing streak. What the heck is the point?
The stakes are low to non-existent, and Douglas Carter Beane’s characters revel in racial stereotypes (Jewish, African American, Latino — you name it, he’s written a two-dimensional character to exemplify it). The super-shiny set (Allen Moyer), color-splashed, semi-slutty costumes (David C. Woolard and Thomas Charles LeGalley) and endearingly enthusiastic cast work hard for laughs (most successful is Lindsay Nicole Chambers with her exuberant curls and priceless poetry slams), but the material simply doesn’t boast enough zippy one-liners amidst all its predictable pop culture references. My (least) favorite was the sigh-inducing slam bemoaning the overabundance of stage musicals based on films — a joke that is particularly unfunny considering the man who wrote it sole other musical experience comes from two such musicals (Sister Actand Xanadu, the latter of which is one of the most shallow, ridiculous, delightful and hilarious musical experiences on Broadway in the past 5 years). Be careful lest you bite the hand that feeds you, Mr. Beane.
And why, oh why, in a musical comedy about sex is the word sex utilized but once (brava for the “sex jihad” joke, by the way)? Aristophanes would’ve been as appalled as I was by the almost complete lack of raunchiness. There is, in fact, an entire song that avoids any kind of sexy directness — “No More Giving It Up!” is cringe-inducing in its G-rated lyrical awkwardness and bland pop stylings. Knechtges’ cheertastic choreography doesn’t help bring the sexy back either — for the record, Kenny Ortega did the baller number better.
For whatever reason, Lysistrata Jones was a hit when first staged at the Dallas Theater Center and then again when it was presented off-Broadway this past summer by the usually spot-on Transport Group (Was Ben Brantley drinking the Kool-Aid?). While everyone from the cast to the designers to the creators of LJ are working really, really hard to be super-fun and super-funny, they don’t come anywhere near the deliciously guilty pleasures of the Legally Blondes and Alter Boyzs of the musical theatre world. The joy of musical fluff comes from its clever, streamlined effortlessness — not from awkward, unsexy earnestness.