BWW Reviews: Fun West Coast Premiere of LYSISTRATA JONES Is A Slam-Dunk at OC's Chance Theater
What do you get when you mash-up an ancient Greek play with the contemporary, meta-sarcasm of Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, and Bring It On? Well, what you get is the buoyant musical confection LYSISTRATA JONES, now playing its West Coast Premiere performances at Chance Theater's brand-spankin' new theater space in Anaheim Hills through March 9.
Filled with playwright Douglas Carter Beane's witty dialogue and amusingly droll characters that are column-framed by a fun, pop-tastic score by Lewis Flinn, this superb new OC production of the Off-Broadway (and, briefly, Broadway) critical darling proves to be an endearingly upbeat, surprisingly thought-provoking musical that winningly elevates the battle of the sexes to a much higher level of snark.
And with its new, larger footprint as a canvas, Chance Theater's first full production at its fancy fresh digs (just a few doors down from its old space) is, without a doubt, a real winner.
For all its youthful mirth and rapid-fire laughs, it's actually quite a shock that this Tony-nominated musical didn't last longer on Broadway. But, perhaps---judging by the fact that a mid-size regional house like Chance Theater can showcase an excellent, all-around entertaining production of it---LYSISTRATA JONES is poised to continue its life as a go-to staple across local intimate theaters in the U.S. in the coming years. Certainly the subject matter and the characters in it will guarantee a strong pull for young, fresh talent to land on this contemporary musical. And speaking of... as expected, Chance's own youth-quake production is blessed with a talented, high-energy, and wonderfully age-appropriate ensemble---all of whom clearly look like they're having lots of fun on stage with the material. And that fun? Oh so contagious.
The title of LYSISTRATA JONES, of course, immediately gives away its classical inspiration. Very loosely based on the B.C.-era Greek comedy Lysistrata by playwright Aristophanes, this remarkably smart 21st Century "update" mirrors the main plot point of that ancient text: girl power in the guise of abstinence. And though the play is set in the present day, classic Greek motifs hover throughout like foreshadowing, omniscient ghosts.
Lysistrata Jones (the bubbly Devon Hadsell)---or "Lyssie J" as she prefers her pals to call her---has just transferred to Athens University (hehe, get it) and joins the Spartans cheer squad. Full of ideas and can-do spirit, she quickly devises a seemingly brilliant plan in order to end the basketball team's pathetic 30-year losing streak: by rallying her female BFFs to withhold sex from their boyfriends/lovers/playthings on the basketball team---that is until the young men can summon enough, um, balls to win a damn game for once.
Lyssie's scheme, of course, will sound quite familiar to those versed in classic Greek comedies. That's right... she takes a page right out Aristophanes' own ancient playbook, which found Lysistrata leading the female citizens of Athens to stop having sex with their men until they put an end to the Peloponnesian War. Naturally, as it did in that ancient comedy, a tug of war also ensues in LYSISTRATA JONES between the two gender camps which, indubitably, produces the musical's hilarious conflict.
Who will emerge victorious? Will it be Lyssie and her girrrlll-power troops? Or will it be the super-horny boys led by charismatic team captain Mick (J.D. Driskill)?
Thankfully, most of the action is presided over by the helpful Greek muse-slash-narrator Hetaira (the awesome, wickedly haughty Camryn Zelinger), who likes to pepper the narrative with humorous observations and soulful, Aretha Franklin-style riffing. Amen, gurrll. Amen. (On a side note, am I the only one who thinks Zelinger is a spitting image of WICKED's Shoshana Bean?)
While LYSISTRATA JONES, on the onset, appears to follow the typical signposts of teen-centric storylines, I really appreciated the fact that though the peripheral characters (Lyssie's gal pals; Mick's basketball bros; the nerd boy caught in the middle) all seem to start out as eye-roll-causing stereotypes, each person eventually upends those stereotypes as they all slowly blossom deeper layers in their respective personalities (and, yes, even our main, curly-coiffed heroine gets a chance to be briefly shown in a not-so-flattering light).
Under the savvy direction of Kari Hayter---who also helmed Chance Theater's slick OC debut of BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON last year---this peppy musical satire is able to find the right balance between comic sharpness and sincere societal examination, with plenty of sweat-inducing, high-energy production numbers---some with, woah, convincing basketball displays---intertwined with nary a misstep.
Judging from her pair of shows so far at the Chance, Hayter certainly has an expert command for not only directing young actors but also directing said actors in fresh, revisionists musicals that skew the old with the new. The results, to my delight, have been both rousing and engagingly complex.
It's also worth noting that the production's seemingly brisk pacing never allow for lulls, undoubtedly helped along by Kelly Todd's cheerful, hyperactive choreography and Christopher Scott Murillo and Daniel Bravo's purposeful, user-friendly sets and props (yep, those nooks and crannies and other assorted shelvings all serve their own purpose). Also, Bradley Lock's costumes provide an authentic hybrid of styles that reflect both their classical origins and contemporary ease.
The terrific four-person band---led by music director Rod Bagheri---provided the snappy pop-rock soundtrack. My only complaint: the sound mix didn't seem to be all quite worked out yet during the Sunday matinee of the show's opening weekend; some of the ensemble's singing and dialogue were inaudible or not as amplified as the principles in the cast (here's hoping they've found the optimal settings for each microphone for subsequent performances).
But, honestly, the real highlight of the show for me is witnessing this ensemble cast's performances. Not only is the singing exemplary, the comic timing is exceptional. And, boy, once they all start singing and dancing together as a full company in sync, you can't help but smile---and to be truly thankful for that elongated basketball court stage they get to play on in this lovely new space.
Overall, the super-fun (and super-funny) LYSISTRATA JONES at the Chance Theater is truly a theatrical slam-dunk. Not since DAMN YANKEES have I been this enthralled by a sports-themed musical---and for that alone, this smart, entertaining show should be showered with stadium-sized buckets of confetti.
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Photos from Chance Theater's LYSISTRATA JONES by Thamer Bajjali/True Image Studio. From top: Mick (J.D. Driskill) argues with Lyssie (Devon Hadsell); Hetaira (Camryn Zelinger) seduces with zingers; the ladies show what the boys are missing; Xander (Robert Wallace) dons the school's mascot costume to please his crush Lyssie (Devon Hadsell).
The Chance Theater's Production of LYSISTRATA JONES continues through March 9, 2013. The Chance Theater's new home is located in the newly-christened Bette Aitken Theater Arts Center at 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, CA 92807.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call (714) 777-3033 or visit www.ChanceTheater.com.