Thank you, Aristophanes.
A mere 2,400 years after he wrote “Lysistrata,” its latest take-off “Lysistrata Jones” is the best musical of the Broadway season.
It would be too easy to dismiss this as “High School Musical” east just because of singing and dancing basketball players. This is a musical with substance, energy and joy, and it’s impossible to leave frowning.
Patti Murin, as Lysistrata, or Lyssie, who was also wonderful and exuberant in “Xanadu” and Liz Mikel (“Friday Night Lights”) as Hetaira, a courtesan not to be crossed, are magnificent. Mikel has the presence and voice of a woman who knows her power.
And she’s only too happy to share that power and wisdom with a ragtag bunch of college cheerleaders and one strident librarian on work-study. The story, at least its main point, remains true.
As they say in the opening number, “It’s a play by Aristophanes/He’s dead/so we do as we please.”
The action unfolds at Athens University. “Let’s just call it less than competitive,” Hetaira says.
It’s the ultimate in safety schools, a little sad and disjointed. The basketball team has not won a game in 33 years. The girlfriends of the players unite, led by Lyssie, who just wants something in her life to be victorious.
They vow off sex with their boyfriends until the team wins a game.
Robin (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) a work-study librarian, partial to Def Comedy Jams, plants the idea for the women to withhold sex. She tells Lyssie about Aristophanes’ play. Reading the original is a bit too intellectual for Lyssie, but the Spark Notes connect and while in the library she meets the adorable Xander (Jason Tam), campus blogger.
Basketball team captain Mick (Josh Segarra) figures they can just continue their losing streak. But they are supposed to be teenagers or at least early ’20’s athletes, so abstaining is not going to be a way of life.
They sing, they break up, they hook up with new people. And the fun casting has the Jewish guy, an English lit major, talking like a ghetto gang-banger, and the Asian woman as dim. The humor is sweet, and sex implied, with far steamier couplings happening in primetime.
The most graphic moments are of basic figures on signs. The cheerleaders are explaining what is not going to happen until the team wins and they hold up posters of figures in flagrante. It’s a low-rent and sweet way to couch the premise and reminds us that this show came from smaller theaters. There’s still a real economy to it; seven musicians above the stage, costumes are not fussy.
There are a few show stopping numbers: “No More Giving It Up,” “Where am I Now” and “Give It Up!” Besides Aristophanes, let’s thank director and choreographer Dan Knechtges, who has tremendous fun with the dance numbers, playwright Douglas Carter Beane for the updated book and Lewis Flinn for the music.
It is pretty amazing to think that 2,400 years after Aristophanes had them cheering in aisles in an amphitheater, they’re cheering in the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway. And it’s heartening that after a lackluster season, so far, for musicals, we finally have a bona fide hit.