It's funny how reasonable critics, and audience members, can disagree about the merits of a particular piece. After I sat through Lysistrata Jones last Friday night - "endured" would be a more appropriate verb, actually - I fully expected to awake this morning to a set of reviews that echoed my own nonplussed sentiments about the show.
Nope. The show got raves. Raves. The only review that I've been able to find that even came close to expressing views similar to mine was that of Adam Feldman in Time Out New York, and even he seemed to like it more than I did. But my overall response to Lysistrata Jones can be summed up in how I felt about the show's horrendously garish logo (see right) when I first saw it: Oh, my God. Would you turn it the f#@k down?
(Explanation: The production features lots of "American Idol"-brand screaming and loud musical accompaniment. Was all that volume really necessary to compensate for the acoustic liabilities of the gym location? More on this later.)
Lysistrata Jones, previously known under the far less awkward title Give it Up during its premier run in Dallas, is the latest musical effort by Douglas Carter Beane, esteemed playwright and musical librettist, notably for Xanadu. As you might expect, the show is based on Lysistrata by Aristophanes, but for me quite a bit has been lost in the translation.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the production is that it takes place under the auspices of The Transport Group, and is the latest in their continuing series of site-specific productions. (See The Boys in the Band in a Chelsea penthouse, Hello Again in a SoHo loft, etc.) Here, the setting is a literal basketball court at the The Gym at Judson, which is appropriate considering the show revolves around the efforts of one cheerleader to get the college's historically losing basketball team to win just one game. Her solution: no sex until the boys pull one off. (Er, so to speak...)
But here's where the translation problems arise. In the Aristophanes original, the women withhold sex as an anti-war protest. Here, they're just trying to get the guys to win a basketball game. It's not entirely clear why the girls would even care about this. And, furthermore, why should we? In Xanadu, Beane infused the show with enough arch humor and sheer fun to compensate for the fact that the plot didn't make any sense. In fact, Xanadu reveled in the ridiculousness of the source material. But here, Beane hasn't included enough camp to compensate.
The show starts off sharp and lively, ably abetted by an enthusiastic young cast and some genuinely kick-ass staging from director/choreographer Dan Knechtges. But the show loses steam by the end of the first act, veering quickly from the land of energetic farce to laconic after-school special. Beane includes a fair number of his trademark quips, including a topical nod to the recent scandal with former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. (I can't imagine that reference is going to have much of a shelf-life.)
But the show eventually slides downward into toothless melodrama, and I found myself not caring about a single person on stage. (Or on court, as it were.) A major part of the problem for me was unclear character motivations: I didn't really understand why everyone in the show seemed to be so mad at each other, or where all the misunderstandings were coming from.
Not helping in this respect are the songs by Lewis Flinn, which start off rather vigorous and clever, but eventually veer into the land of the bland. Act one ends with a rather generic ballad about Lysistrata feeling alone, having alienated practically everyone in her young life, and blah blah blah. And the score never fully recovers. Flinn's songs have a certain authentic modern sound to them, but their dramatic intent isn't always clear, for instance in the seemingly pivotal number "Lay Low." In this song, Mick the basketball captain, and central male love interest, is apparently telling his teammates that they should all respond to the girls' no-win-no-sex policy by...well...I'm not entirely sure what he was saying. But, hey, it sounded good.
That said, the cast here is game and winning, particularly Patti Murin as Lysistrata and Jason Tam as Xander, the nerd-cum-team-mascot who attempts to win her heart. And Dan Knechtges' staging is especially strong. Unlike the girly boys in the recent revival of West Side Story, the young men here actually looked like they might know their way around a basketball court, if not a street fight.
But, hey, don't just go by me. Check out the rest of the reviews, and indeed the show itself, and let me know if you think I'm just being cranky and dyspeptic. Which, actually, I'm fine with.