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Review - Lysistrata Jones: A Damned Exasperating Woman

When it was announced that Transport Group's compact production of bookwriter Douglas Carter Beane and composer/lyricist Lewis Flinn's giddily fun and sexy musical combo of Aristophanes and college hoops, Lysistrata Jones, was moving to Broadway, there was some understandable concern about the Off-Broadway production - originally staged on a gym's half-court - being able to fill out the much larger space. Not to worry. It turns out LJ was just aching for some much-needed elbow room to really fly. At the Walter Kerr, the production values have been expanded to enhance the freestyle romp without overwhelming it, the performances have grown with Broadway-sized confidence and the show is funnier and more delightful than ever.

When Aristophanes premiered the knockabout comedy, Lysistrata, in 411 B.C., his tale of women denying sex to their husbands until they ended the Peloponnesian War was an irreverent protest against then-contemporary politics. It's now considered an important artistic landmark for using comedy to make a stance. So at first Lysistrata Jones' story of the girlfriends of an apathetic college basketball team refusing to "give it up" until they win a game may seem to lack the same dramatic urgency. But then it evolves into neat little explorations of self-esteem, self-discovery and the importance of non-sexual connections in romantic relationships. They don't delve into Sondheimish depths, but the new twist adds a refreshingly original and unexpected angle to an already immensely enjoyable show.

We're at Athens University, a college so disinterested in sports that their team name is the Spartans. The reason why the basketball team hasn't won a game in thirty-three years (The Peloponnesian War lasted 27 years so I can't tell what that number represents.), as explained by captain Mick (Josh Segarra as the jock who hides his sensitive side), is that in order to avoid the disappointment of defeat, they go into each game with no intention but to have fun, with their minds more focused on their customary post-game delights at the Acropolis Mountain Lounge; a tradition enthusiastically followed by hot-blooded Latino couple Uardo and Cleonice (Alexander Aguilar and Kat Nejat), gansta-talking white boy Cinesuis (Alex Wyse) and his black, classic lit-loving mate Mhyrinne (LaQuet Sharnell, who wails some wildly sexy vocals) and Tyllus (Max Kumangai), who sees his bubble-headed Asian babe, Lampito (Katie Boren), as part of his life's plan check list. Harold (Teddy Toye) is the only player who abstains from the fun, preferring to spend his nights at home watching action-hero movies.

But this won't do for Mick's new girlfriend, transfer student Lysistrata (Patti Murin, whose funny, spunky turn as a blonde trophy gf type who thinks creatively has grown considerably more leading-ladylike) who wants her man to have goals and ambitions. When she convinces the other girls to form the school's first cheerleading squad and inspire the boys to victory, the Spartans really give an effort but lose a close one, making the guys swear to never try to win again.

With drastic measures needed, Lysistrata goes to the library, where militant slam poet Robin (hilariously angry Lindsay Nicole Chambers), helps her learn the story of her namesake. Our heroine also acquires the help of laptop activist Xander (endearingly nerdy Jason Tam) by inspiring him to take up causes beyond his keyboard.

The simple sweetness of Aristophanes' original is that once the women decide to withhold sex, nobody even considers going outside of their relationships for temporary relief. Everyone's in love with their spouse and wants nobody else. But in Lysistrata Jones, the decision to not only withhold sex but to do more provocative cheers and even start sexting the frustrated lads until they win a game leads to breakups, re-couplings, trips to a brothel and the discovery of sexual identities, as the gang begins considering other components of healthy romantic relationships. (The madam of the brothel is played by the musical's narrator, the charismatic bluesy belter Liz Mikel.)

Off-Broadway, Beane's very clever book was loaded with punch lines referencing art and theatre, rather than sports (The Spartans had a game against the Corinthian Columns.) but most of them seem to have been phased out in favor of less-obscure gags regarding modern technology. Flinn's bouncy pop score contains a lively assortment of hip-hop and R&B offerings that inspire director/choreographer Dan Knechtges to propel his company into dazzlingly quick cheerleading and b-ball playing routines. The biggest improvement in the show is how the choreography has expanded from its cramped Off-Broadway quarters. So eye-popping is the dancing that it's only when the score slows down that it's noticeable how the lyrics, while certainly capable, don't match the wit of the book.

Nevertheless, Lysistrata Jones is a fetching musical comedy filled with laughs and delivered with comical zest by a loveable company. Good clean sexy fun.

Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Kat Nejat, Lindsay Nicole Chambers, Patti Murin, LaQuet Sharnell and Katie Boren; Bottom: Max Kumangai, Alex Wyse, Teddy Toye, Alexander Aguilar and Josh Segarra.

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