Among today’s Broadway musicals, Lysistrata Jones (Walter Kerr Theatre) stands out, in ways both good and less. It’s the only current musical, for instance, to contain a Kitty Dukakis joke, not one of its better distinctions. On the positive side, it’s the only current musical inspired by a classic Greek play, a choice that shows a likeable chutzpah. That doesn’t make it a great musical—its limitations keep it well out of that category—but a spoonful of chutzpah, mixed with silliness and a lot of youthful energy, can do a lot to turn a deeply non-great musical into a pleasant evening.
And despite its ancient source, Lysistrata Jones, as reconstituted uptown from Transport Group’s Off-Broadway production last summer, has another distinction: It’s the only current Broadway musical that sounds like today. Not bad imitation ’80s pop, not ’60s show tunes chopped up into tinfoil, not oversouped ’50s R&B, but a musical-theater rendering of sounds you might hear outside the theater if you jacked into somebody’s iPod. This, too, has its downside: Most of the popular stuff being listened to these days is junk—which was also true 20, 40, 80, and 300 years ago. Having to hear it inside the theater probably won’t cheer up those who came in hoping for something better, or at least something different. Popular music carries one of the most puzzling phenomena of our paradoxical time: the insanely wide gap between the enormous knowledge and technical skill of its artists and the largely dreadful, savorless results they produce.
The savor of Lysistrata Jones, a highly limited but genuine quality, doesn’t come from its score, by Lewis Flinn, or from any other single source. None of the show’s aspects is overpoweringly good, but every department has added its meager mite to the modestly worthwhile total. Aristophanes, who supplied the premise, poses interesting problems for us today. Rich with untranslatably poetic language, stuffed with topical jokes so long deceased even classical scholars don’t get most of them, his plays notoriously seem all premise and no follow-through. Some have theorized that the modern form closest to his work might be the vaudeville show—a disconnected series of songs, dances, and comedy sketches that fifth century B.C. Athens dressed up by linking them to a common theme.
This formal looseness, plus translation difficulties, has largely kept Aristophanes out of the commercial mainstream. This is Broadway’s seventh try at refashioning Lysistrata (411 B.C.); most of its predecessors were either quick failures or curios. The poet’s politics, too, register as contradictory today: A reactionary who viewed Socrates and Euripides as dangerous subversives, he wrote comedies, Lysistrata included, that ferociously ridicule the Peloponnesian War, in which Athens was mired during much of his career. We’ll understand him better when the Tea Party advocates abolishing Homeland Security.
Flinn and book writer Douglas Carter Beane engage Aristophanes’ contradictions by standing his play’s premise on its head. His Lysistrata organizes an anti-war strike by the women of Athens: no sex for their men till there’s a peace treaty with Sparta. The musical’s Lysistrata Jones (Patti Murin), in contrast, wants more fight from her men: An Athens U. transfer student, she gets the cheerleading squad to “give up giving it up” until their boyfriends on the school’s loser basketball team finally win a game.
Beane finds smiley ways to slip some tenuous moral meaning into this trivializing impertinence, while mocking—quite Aristophanically—all reverence for his Greek source. Flinn’s songs suffer from sameness and from an ear-splittingly metallic realization, but his propulsive rhythms move the show quickly past its lamer and its louder moments, while director-choreographer Dan Knechtges keeps the actors’ bodies in constant motion to match. Of acting, as such, there’s little: Most of the cast, including Murin, offer only a loud, proficient, fresh-faced blankness. But Liz Mikel and Jason Tam each nab a few laughs, as, respectively, a sex worker teaching the girls how to de-eroticize, and an epically liberal-geek-turned-sports-hero. And three of the youngsters—Katie Boren and Lindsay Nicole Chambers, as two of “LyssieJ” ‘s crew, and Josh Segarra, as the diffident team captain—display the kind of personal presence that makes half-good musicals worth watching, if you can afford the tariff.