Lysistrata Jones may have flopped on Broadway a couple seasons back, but the Tony-nominated musical proves itself a winner at Chance Theater while at the same time providing a terrific way for audiences to discover the Chance’s brand spanking new digs down Anaheim Hills way.
Taking its cue from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, first performed a whopping 2,425 years ago, Lysistrata Jones transforms the Greek heroine’s mission to end the Peloponnesian War into a considerably less ambitious yet still daunting one—to end a college basketball team’s 33-year losing streak before the final game of this year’s season.
As for how this modern Lysistrata intends to turn a miserable menagerie of losers into a mighty band of winners, google her Ancient Greek namesake and you’ll find the answer. Till the Spartans give up giving up victory to the opposing team, no Athens University coed will be “giving it up” to her basketball-playing boyfriend … no way, no how, no sir.
And just as this premise worked for Aristophanes circa 411 BC, so did it work in Lysistrata Jones’ original 2011 off-Broadway run, one which took place in what could only be described as a dream setting—a 99-seat Washington Square church gymnasium.
A musical about basketball on an honest-to-goodness basketball court? How perfect was that?
Broadway’s 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre proved considerably less ideal for a musical without a single “name” in its cast, and despite a rave from the New York Times’ make-it-or-break-it critic Ben Brantley, Lysistrata Jones played its 30th and last performance on January 8, 2012.
Fortunately for Lyssie J., there is life after the Great White Way, particularly for a musical that ought to have had the sense to stay small, and Chance Theater’s grander yet still intimate new 150-seat digs prove an ideal fit, the next best thing to the actual gymnasium that was Lysistrata Jones’ original home, with scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo having transformed the Chance into an honest-to-goodness (if scaled down) basketball court.
Douglas Carter Beane scored a Best Book Tony nomination for Lysistrata Jones, his unique brand of humor proving every bit as delightful as it did in his previous Broadway winners—Xanadu, Sister Act, and The Little Dog Lauged.
Like its sister musical Xanadu, Lysistrata Jones opens in Ancient Greece before then morphing into modern day Athens … University, USA, where pretty, perky blonde transfer student Lyssie (Devon Hadsell) finds herself getting tired of seeing boyfriend Mick (J.D. Driskill) and his fellow Spartans (the Athens Spartans?) lose game after game.
A trip to the school library introduces Lyssie to brainy work-study student Robin (Ashley Arlene Nelson), who suggests that our heroine check out her Ancient Greek namesake, if not in Aristophanes’ unabridged original, then at least in the unabridged Spark Notes.
Talk about divine inspiration. Before you can say, “Have mercy, good God, we got a sex jihad,” Lyssie and her fellow cheerleaders Myrrhine (Chelsea Baldree), Lampito (Klarissa Mesee), and Cleonice (Danielle Rosario) have determined to “Change The World” of Athens University basketball by informing their boyfriends that there’ll be “No More Givin’ It Up.”
Unfortunately for Lyssie and her gal pals, teammates Mick, Cinesias (Jackson Tobiska), Tyllus (Darian Archie), and Uardo (Michael Dashefsky) may be horny frat-boy types, but they’re not desperate horny frat-boy types, and sooner than you can say “trip to the neighborhood bordello,” the foursome and the team’s lone bachelor Harold (Ricky Wagner) have headed on over to the Eros Motor Lodge, whose madam bears a striking resemblance to Ancient Greek courtesan Hetaira (Camryn Zelinger), who’s been narrating this tale since first we met her way back in the prologue.
Completing the comedis personae is nerdy left-wing blogger Xander (Robert Wallace), persuaded by Lyssie’s irresistible feminine wiles to become the Spartan mascot, plumed helmet, metal breastplate, miniskirt, and all.
Will Lyssie J. live to regret her Aristophanes-inspired No Win-Win, No Boom-Boom scheme? Will the boys live to regret their trip to the motel of ill repute? Will the couples we start out with be the ones we end up with? Will the Spartans ever win a game?
For the answers to these and any other questions you might happen to have, you will simply have to head on down to the Chance, and lest Lysistrata Jones’ ignominiously brief Broadway run (or the fact that neither you nor anyone else reading this review has probably even heard of Lysistrata Jones before today) dissuade you from checking Lyssie J. out, rest assured of the following:
With a) director Kari Hayter and choreographer Kelly Todd making the same magic they did with this past summer’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, b) a cast of some of Southern California’s most gifted young triple-threats giving audiences their endlessly energetic all, and c) boy-wonder musical director Rod Bagheri leading a sensational four-piece band, Lysistrata Jones proves a crowd-pleaser from Mount Olympus start to last-game-of-the-season finish.
It helps enormously that Beane’s book is a winner. Leave it to Douglas Carter to come up with lines like “The best theater is always a movie first. That way the audience doesn’t have to worry about being surprised.” (This is, after all, the man who turned lemon into lemonade with Xanadu’s screen-to-stage transformation.)
It helps too that despite the generic funk of some of Lewis Flinn’s melodies, the talented young songsmith has come up with more than enough winners (lyrics by Beane), including the Latin rhythms of “Lay Low,” the power ballad punch of “Where Am I Now,” and the infectious charm of “Hold On.”
Director Hayter, who in recent years gave fresh new Scenie-winning life to Rent, Chicago, and [title of show], once again proves herself one of Southern California’s finest, most creative talents, aided and abetted by three-time Scenie-winning Choreographer Of The Year Todd doing her imaginative best, combining basketball and cheerleader moves with disco funk and more than a bit of inspiration from the Ancient Greeks.
As for the dozen performers assembled on the Chance basketball court, catch their work now because it won’t be long before Broadway, National Tours, and major regional productions will take them hither, thither, and beyond.
Chance favorite Zelinger does her most scintillating work to date as Hetaira, channeling her inner Aretha Franklin and Jennifers Holiday and Hudson to give us the Greek diva to end all divas, sassy, sexy, and with pipes powerful enough to reach the top of Mount Olympus.
CSUF Musical Theatre BFA Class of 2014 seniors Hadsell and Dashefky both prove themselves ready to fly post-graduation day. The former is every bit as stellar a Lyssie as she was as Cleo/Kira in CSUF’s Xanadu, and for a classically trained soprano, this gal can pop belt with the best of them. As for Dashefsky, talents don’t come any hotter than All Shook Up’s pelvis-swiveling Chad, who has great fun this time round in sabroso Latino mode opposite equally sexy, equally talented UCLA grad Rosario as his salsational chiquita Cleonice.
The Chance welcomes back CSUF grads Baldree and Wallace, two of the most gifted musical theater talents around … and two of our most versatile triple-threats. Baldree’s Myrrhine may well be her sexiest creation to date, her great big belt of a voice a perfect fit for the show-stopping “Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover,” and a night-and-day cry from her ditzy Scenie-winning blonde bimbo in Anything Goes. As for Wallace, could the Scenie-winning star of Rooms: A Rock Romance be any more infectiously charming or golden-throated as he is as Lysistrata Jones’ nerdily handsome Xander?
And how about Rent alum Driskill’s charismatic, rock-star-voiced Mick and Chance resident artist Tobiska’s hilarious, ghetto-jiving Cinesias, each of them proving that no book should be judged by its cover, as does UCI student Nelson, every bit as fantastic as poetry-slamming Robin as she was as Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’s guitar-strumming Rachel or The Secret Garden’s feisty Yorkshire servant girl Martha.
CSUF Class of 2012 Musical Theater BFA grad Wagner and AMDA LA’s Archie, his equally talented partner in superhero fandom (and more?), do winning work as well, as does UCLA’s marvelous Mesee, whose bubble-headed Lampito plays deliciously against Asian whiz kid stereotype.
And speaking of whiz kids, musical director Bagheri may be a mere twenty-one years of age, but his prodigious talents shine, both in the cast’s vocals and in his Lysistrata Jones band: Bagheri on piano, Garrett Hazen on guitar, James McHale on bass, and Jorge Zuniga on drums.
Scenic designer extraordinaire Murillo gets top marks for his basketball gym, an all-purpose set which morphs into multiple other locales, most prominently Madam Hetaira’s No Tell Motel, fold-down double bed and all. Recent Best Lighting Design Ovation Award winner Matt Schleicher does it terrifically once again for Lyssie J., as does sound designer Ryan Brodkin in the face of what I’m told were some difficulties in getting the Chance’s new space ready in time for Opening Night. Prop designer Daniel Bravo deserves abundant props for the abundance of accoutrements he’s come up with for Lysistrata Jones, and not just basketballs and pompoms.
Crystal Hoskins Phillips is assistant director, Christopher M. Albrecht is assistant choreographer, and Josh Cardenas assistant sound designer/audio engineer. Sarah DuVal is dramaturg.
Courtny Greenough is stage manager/company manager.
Chance Theater is headed by artistic director Oanh Nguyen. Casey Long is managing director, Erika C. Miller development director, Masako Tobaru production manager/technical director, Teodora Ramos master carpenter, Jeff Hellebrand box office associate, Jocelyn A. Brown associate artistic director, Jennifer Ruckman literary manager, and Marc Sanford associate house manager. Mary Kay Fyda-Mar is associate producer for Lysistrata Jones.
Let me conclude this review with a memo to Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn:
You two could not have been blessed with a finer home for your baby Lyssie J.’s West Coast Premiere than the OC’s finest intimate theater. By Zeus, the gods atop Mount Olympus would be proud indeed of what the Chance hath wrought.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
February 15, 2014
Photos: Thamer Bajjali, True Image Studio