Lysistrata Jones: Aristophanes with College Athletes

12/21/2011 7:00 AM |

Lysistrata Jones
Book by Douglas Carter Beane
Music & Lyrics by Lewis Flinn
Directed by Dan Knechtges

Tits and teeth go a long way in Lysistrata Jones. While many Broadway musicals aim to be fun but fail, this high-energy pop spectacle is a hoot: Douglas Carter Beane's book is full of knee-slapping one-liners—"no-news is good news," one character insists; "do you think that's what Amelia Earhart's family said?" another answers—but the show mostly succeeds on the strength of its enthusiastic ensemble (led by the peppy Patti Murin), who make the most of Lewis Flinn's serviceable songs and director Dan Knechtges' athletic choreography. But Lysistrata Jones has its downsides, too, including its off-putting racial caricatures and delusions of grandeur.

The concept is simple: it updates the Lysistrata of ancient Greece to a present-day American college, where the head cheerleader decides to withhold sex from the basketball team—on a 30-year losing streak—until they win a game. (The show's archetypes all come from the Hollywood high-school comedy, but I suspect a Broadway show about underage sex might have been too scandalous to sell well. Not that the show is selling so well, anyway; perhaps a bit of contrived controversy is just what it needed!) As such, the stakes are far slighter than in the Aristophanes: Lysistrata tried to end the Peloponnesian War; her 21st century namesake wants to win basketball games. So, for dramatic heft, Beane tries to connect Jones' determination for once to win with the deflated spirit of her recession-crushed country—her father has lost his job and given up on finding new work; her mother has given up on her father. Against a national mood of apathy, resignation, mediocrity, and failure—a fear of trying—Jones asks people to risk embarrassment and be their best. "Maybe it starts as a game," she explains, "but then one day it's your life."

Or, you know, it really is just a game. The show's themes are as unconvincing as its attempts to connect Jones' minor personal quest to the great social movements of history. (Susan B. Anthony? Seriously?) Too much of Lysistrata Jones is that simplistic, especially its broad Latino caricatures and its use of Liz Mekel as equal parts one-woman Greek chorus and magical Negro. But also its heartsick ballads, contrived conflicts and the easy targets of its jokes—poetry slammers, liberal bloggers, and wiggers. And yet. I was still laughing at many of those jokes. And how about those spectacular set pieces pulled off by the committed, lovable, and aggressively diverse cast, led by Murin's spunky Reese Witherspoon-type? If the show closes quickly, as it might be on track to do, it will at least have introduced the extraordinarily talented Murin to those of us who missed her in Xanadu. Her singing voice is clear and robust, but the strength of her performance transcends such technical perfection: it's the way she takes something as artificial as a sung soliloquy and makes it sound like honest expression—like it's as natural as her talent.

(Photo: Joan Marcus)