As the house lights came up at the end of the first act of Lysistrata Jones, the new musical comedy that opened last night at the Water Kerr Theater, I turned to my theater date and exclaimed, "I love this!" before realizing that I hadn’t bothered writing down anything in my notebook during that first hour-and-a-half. Instead, I was completely enthralled and entertained by what I had just seen on stage above me: a silly, ridiculously enjoyable musical featuing an energetic ensemble of young actors playfully skewering the sexual politics running rampant on a college campus.
For those who avoided the classics in undergrad, Lysistrata Jones is a modern retelling of the bawdy comedy by Aristophanes in which the women of Athens withhold sex from their husbands and lovers in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War. Jumping forward in time by 2,400 years, Lysistrata is now a recent transfer student at Athens University, a "less than competitive" school full the usual stereotypical collegiate characters: dumb jocks, ditsy coeds, a feminist slam poetry enthusiast, and at least one bespectacled political activist with a snarky blog called "The Left Nut." Frustrated with the basketball team’s lack of athletic ambition (they haven’t won a game in 30 years), Lyssie J. comes up with a scheme to put a spark under the guys’ sneakers and "give up giving it up."
What results is a hilarious battle of the sexes, layered with light feminist (and, surprisingly, racial) commentary. While there are references to the classic tale, the musical’s strongest elements are the current pop culture humor (Siri makes a cameo, the protagonist gets her plan from SparkNotes, and two characters bond over the homoeroticism in Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin). And since it’s a play centered around basketball, the choreography is particularly athletic, infusing a hip-hop aesthetic in a way that doesn’t feel forced or cheesy. Plenty Broadway musicals have gone for a Top 40 sound in recent years, but this usually results in square attempts at a young, hip sound–like acoustic guitars in church. The creative team behind Lysistrata Jones, however, deliver a score that actually sounds like pop music (and not of the bland Glee variety).
It’s hardly a perfect show, of course. The second act isn’t as fast-paced as the first, and a few of the songs, particularly a ballad sung by Lyssie’s boyfriend (the captain of the basketball team, played by Josh Segarra), feel like filler. There is also a one-woman Greek chorus (Hetaira, played by the fantastic Liz Merkel) that guides us through the show, but her inclusion ultimately seems like an unnecessary nod to the source material. Overall, however, the cast is terrific, especially Patti Murin in the title role–a surprising ball of kinetic energy with a powerhouse voice hiding within her petite frame.
Lysistrata Jones is a joyful musical full of warmth and heart, a satire that doesn’t overly attack the characters and concepts it criticises. It’s a refreshing tale that avoids slut-shaming, and it doesn’t preach the virtues of chastity as much as it praises the power of female sexuality (while staying delightfully PG-13). The production is a gamble; it’s got a funny title, a cast without a bold-faced name, and a story that wasn’t lifted from a recent movie (an issue that turns up in a self-referential joke in the first act). It does, however, feature bold thematic elements ready to jump out from the gimmicks of show’s aesthetic, a collection of catchy tunes that support a solid book, and an impressive cast of dynamic young talents earnestly giving it up with enthusiastic slam dunk.