NEW YORK - In Aristophanes' Greek comedy "Lysistrata" — part of the Athens season of 411 B.C. — the war-weary women of Greece decide to deny their husbands and lovers sexual favors to induce them to negotiate peace. In Douglas Carter Beane's new American musical "Lysistrata Jones" — part of the Broadway season of 2011 — the fun-starved women of Athens University decide to deny their boyfriends and lovers sexual favors to induce them to win a basketball game.
The main problem of this limp new show should thus be evident. The original play combined subversive comedic antics with hefty stakes. The derivative combines campy comedic antics with no stakes whatsoever, unless some joker has given you Athens U. in the March Madness pool.
Without some viable equivalent of something big to play for, "Lysistrata Jones," its amusements and imagination aside, plays very thin and contrived — albeit with thick Broadway prices — especially since the show never really explains why Lissy and her short-skirted, fun-loving posse care so much about those boys winning at hoops in the first place.
Beane certainly goes for plenty of 3-pointers when it comes to his smart gags and dizzying array of cultural references — everything from Amelia Earhart to Kathy Griffin to Kitty Dukakis to the secrets to turning on a spouse of Newt Gingrich. But as funny as some of those one-liners are, there is no particular reason these characters would be saying any of them. When was the last time you heard a college kid referencing Dukakis?
Off-Broadway, the show was widely seen as a satire of Broadway musical exploitation, a self-aware quality still played up by director and choreographer Dan Knechtges, whose work is sometimes funny and intermittently fresh. But once you move the outsider proceedings onto the Great White Way and into the very temple of absurd indulgences, that meta-quality starts to look a lot more like wanting to have your sexy cheerleaders and shirtless athletes and poke fun at them, too. The satire just does not have enough of an edge to pull that off.
Lead performer Patti Murin, the leader of the show's enthusiastic band, struggles with the higher vocal reaches of Lewis Flinn's harmless pop score, but she's certainly a credible cheerleader with a zestful personality. Several of the other kids — the goofy Josh Segarra as Mick, the more heartfelt Jason Tam as Xander and, especially, Lindsay Nicole Chambers as the smarter Robin — are quite amusing and charming. And Liz Mikel, stuck with pretty much the same African-American, sassy-maternal-madam character you can also see in "Rock of Ages" and "Chicago," does her best with what the gods have provided.
But by the second act, when the show vanishes into a whorehouse and never quite comes out, one has had more than enough. As many a past director has found, "Lysistrata" is one of those plays that only seem to accommodate a progressive viewpoint. Actually, despite its seemingly feminist sympathies, its use of sex as a weapon invariably ends up trivializing the very girl power that adapters and directors want to celebrate. Better to do the thing in drag.
"Lysistrata Jones" plays on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St.; contact 800-432-7250 or lysistratajones.com
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