Friday, January 6, 2012

Lysistrata Jones Review

Patti Murin (center) and the cast of Lysistrata Jones

Some shows simply aren’t meant for Broadway.  The harsh lights of the Great White Way can expose flaws in works that seem perfectly charming in smaller, more intimate venues.  Lysistrata Jones, the new musical playing through the end of the weekend at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is such a show.

The show is a contemporary update of the Greek comedy The Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens withhold sex from their husbands in order to convince the men to stop fighting the Peloponnesian War.  In Lysistrata Jones, the title character (called Lizzie J by her friends) is a transfer student to Athens University, where the basketball team hasn’t won a game for 33 years.  Lizzie J convinces the rest of the cheerleading squad that they have to stop “giving it up” to their basketball-playing boyfriends until the men win a game (the guys aren’t applying themselves for fear of looking stupid if they actually try and still lose).

This change in premise marks the beginning to Lysistrata Jones’ myriad of problems.  The original play was a political allegory, in which the comedy was used to comment on both war and gender politics.  This redux completely removes any political overtones from the story, and fails to replace them with compelling characters or interesting observation on the way men and women behave.  Also, the refusal to EVER utter the word “sex,” while talking about boners, porn, and whores, creates a clash of tones.  The show alternates between innocence and bawdiness, but the transitions aren’t smooth and neither style really works because it is forced to coexist with the other.

In fact, the entire book for Jones leaves something to be desired.  Douglas Carter Beane has no business writing musicals, as this is the second inept musical libretto he’s foisted upon the Broadway community in as many seasons (the other being Sister Act).  The characters are disastrously underwritten, never evolving beyond the stereotypes they are initially presented as.  Their relationships are ill defined, and Beane glosses over major plot points and character developments that could have made the show really endearing.  The show also thinks it is far cleverer than it actually is, with much of Beane’s post-modern humor and fourth-wall breaking asides falling flat.  Lewis Flinn’s pop-influenced score is marginally better, although none of the songs will stay with you beyond the final curtain.

I would love to report that the fresh-faced young cast helps elevate the material, but this is sadly not the case.  Like the music, there is nothing particularly wrong with this cast; there just also isn’t anything particularly memorable.  As Lizzie J, Patti Murin is suitably spunky and sings well enough, but she does nothing to help hide the character’s poorly written swings from ditz to pseudo-brainiac.  As the captain of the basketball team and Lizzie’s boyfriend, Josh Segarra oscillates from dumb jock to enlightened poet without rhyme or reason, and his second act love scene is one of the worst in the show.  The rest of the supporting cast is unfortunately allowed (encouraged?) to play such ridiculous stereotypes they are borderline offensive, especially the two Hispanic characters.

The only real standout among the cast is Liz Mikel as Hetaira, who doubles as the narrator and the grand madam of the local brothel.  With a big voice and even bigger personality, Mikel scores the evening’s biggest laughs with her sassy attitude and clever one liners.  The scene in Act II where the men go to visit her at the brothel is easily the show’s most entertaining, and also contains the script’s best zinger (“I’m moist like a sponge cake”).  You don’t necessarily wish there was more of Mikel, as she gets plenty of stagetime; rather, you wish the rest of the cast was up to her level.

The show is well-designed, with the set doing an excellent job of evoking a community college gymnasium.  The costumes are nice, particularly a hooker outfit one of the characters buys from “The Ho Depot” and the beautiful Grecian-inspired finale outfits.  In fact, the finale as a whole is surprisingly effective, and gives a glimpse at what the show could be had it undergone a few more rewrites before transferring.  In its current state, Lysistrata Jones is a second-string musical that will likely be forgotten soon after it closes on Sunday.  Which is too bad, because this season is in desperate need of a breakout new musicl.

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