It happens every now and again; a show opens in a small venue, sometimes a very particular small venue, owing to the configuration of the space, or maybe even the space itself—is it a reconverted gym, for example?—and it hits, ba-bing, and everyone’s talking about it and then comes the inevitable bright idea, Let’s move it to Broadway.
In the case of a musical, if it has enough universal juice to transcend its setting—if it has hidden reserves of size in its thematic makeup—it will somehow, usually, reflow into the larger environment; the two will adapt to one another. If it doesn’t…if its appeal turns out to have been inextricably linked to the charm of the environment, or—as people sometimes think of it—the lower expectation of a cheaper ticket (which can mean anything from surprise that the production would be so ambitious for such a small theatre, or acceptance of a less rigorous sensibility, more attuned to frivolous fun than craft or substance)—then Broadway is a very harsh host indeed.
And such would seem to be the case with Lysistrata Jones.
Perhaps regrettably (I’ll never know), I missed its downtown engagement last Summer, which was in the aforementioned reconverted gym (where Queen of the Mist is currently playing, in fact). A self-referential riff on Aristophanes, it offers us the head cheerleader of the title (Patti Murin) who decides to follow the lead of her Greek namesake, and band together all the cheerleader girlfriends of the Syracuse College basketball team to withhold sex from their boyfriends until the team finally develops the commitment and passion to win a game. What ensues is a mildly “adultified” version of the kind of school comedy you’d catch on the Disney channel (by which I mean, there’s kisses and hugs and talk about sex, but in terms of actual booty and deed-doin’ it’s all only slightly less innocent than an episode of Head of the Class), with very predictable plot threads and well-worn character archetypes, including the intellectual girl who falls for a jock, a jock who is secretly a scholar of classical poetry, and a white boy from a rich family who insists upon talking like a black homey. Latin and Asian ethnicities do not go wanting for similarly familiar representation either. Our narrator/guide, who occasionally steps in to play a role is Hetaira (Liz Mikel) so named for the ancient type of courtesan who provided both intellectual and carnal stimulus to her clients; who is here put through the filter of “den mother” overseer and reinterpreted as hot, black, sassy, big momma (Liz Mikel).
The book by Douglas Carter Beane is very school-sitcom quippy, and struggles mightily to sustain two acts that its slender story doesn’t earn—fully half the time is spent treading water…or perhaps a better metaphor is dribbling (in the basketball sense, no pun intended) on the sidelines. The music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn are very hooky, energetic and, collectively, way too anthemic. Give a show one great pep-talk or energetic-philosophy thesis, you may have a catchy hit tune. Give it six—“Change the World”, “No More Giving It Up”, “Lay Low”, “I Don’t Think So”, “Don’t Judge a Book”, “Give it up!”—and propaganda (of a sort) outweighs character. The direction and choreography of all this is delivered by Dan Knechtges with music video infectiousness and precision. But it is rather like watching one music video after another…and if that’s not your thing, you feel it after a while.
These are the kinds of issues that seem so much less important when the audience is sitting on either side of the action, literally on bleachers (well, chairs on bleachers: I assume from having attended Queen of the Mist, that the same basic theatrical comfort was provided), the house seats only 99 and the relationship between audience and performer is intimate enough to be a little personal. And that’s because the experience is about the intimacy. It’s about being invited to a private party, about being an honored guest in the box seats for the home game. A music video in your lap (as it were), with a sexy actress or actor making eye contact and directly riffing off your engagement is a very different affair than watching the same display on a proscenium stage…elevated…where there’s a back wall—implying that between you and the actors is the invisible “fourth wall”…and that the play is taking place somewhere else. You’re invited to look in, you’re directly invited to respond appropriately at designated moments…
But you’re just not in the game…
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