As you may know, the terminally perky little musical Lysistrata Jones closed this past weekend on Broadway after only 30 performances, despite a near-rave from Ben Brantley of the New York Times. The show moved to Broadway in December after a critically lauded run downtown at The Gym at Judson, only to discover that many of the same critics who loved the show Off-Broadway were far less enthusiastic when the show opened on the main stem.
Was it the change in venue that made the difference? Did the show work better in the funky gymnasium atmosphere than it did in the gilt-edged opulence of the Walter Kerr?
Not for me. This may come off as smug, but I was one of the critics whose opinion didn't change between the two productions. I found the Off Broadway version of Lysistrata Jones inconsistent and unengaging (read my review), and my opinion of the Broadway production remains virtually the same. The only improvement that I noticed was the new logo, which is miles above the hideous, garish, amateurish logo from the downtown production. (Click through to my review to see the OB logo.)
Sure, there were changes to the show, but they were mostly superficial. The set design is far more lavish, and book writer Douglas Carter Beane seems to have updated a few of the glib topical references, but these added nothing to the effectiveness of the piece itself. With the Off-Broadway production, one of my key problems with the piece was that the score didn't match the witty tone of the book. But upon second viewing, the book isn't so much witty as jokey, replete with one-liners but lacking in any larger cohesion or significance.
In his book for Xanadu, Beane deftly maintained the unifying themes of playfulness and self-conscious irony. Here, the characters merely spout interchangeable quips. At one point, one character says, "The best theater is always a movie first. That way the audience doesn't have to worry about being surprised." It's telling that I can recall the line, but I can't for the life of me remember which character said it.
In this sense, Beane's book represents a throwback to about a century ago, when musicals were stuffed with topical references, irrespective of whether they had any relevance to the show. Off Broadway, one of the characters made a quip about Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Perhaps you can recall the name, but can you remember why he would have been topical during the Off Broadway run? No? Well, in its place, we have a line in which the title character taunts her boyfriend about the new uniforms for the cheer-leading squad, which she promises will make the boys "stiffer than Kim Jong-il." Both references are ephemeral, tangential, and indicative of the superficial nature of the humor as a whole. (Some of the jokes are already way past their sell-by date, including one reference to someone receiving Greek lessons from Kitty Dukakis. Really?)
That said, Beane's book is a damn sight more enjoyable than the show's score, by Lewis Flinn. Sure, Beane renders the anti-war message of Aristophanes' original Lysistrata meaningless by changing the motivation for the women withholding sex from their men. In the original, it's to stop an interminable war. Now, it's to get them to break the thirty-year losing streak of the college basketball game. But there are at least a significant number of laughs to be had.
Flinn's songs start on the fun-but-unmemorable side, but they eventually bog the show down as they veer away from the comic sensibility of the book and become increasingly earnest. I only recall laughing once during one of the songs: in "Lay Low," the basketball captain exhorts his teammates to rise to the challenge that their girlfriends have set before them by riding it out. "That's why God invented porn," he sings. Yeah, not brilliant, or particularly original, but it gave me a chuckle.
Worse, Flinn's lyrics are typically either generic or meaningless. During the song "Hold On," Lysistrata's burgeoning new love interest Xander encourages her not to abandon her chosen path: "Hold on. Don't let go. In the morning when the lights are low." Um, why would lights be low in the morning? Why would they be on at all? And, more to the point, what does this have to do with what's going on in the scene at hand? I must admit that the tune to "Hold On" was kind of catchy, and it remained the only song to stick with me beyond the final curtain, but I attribute this more to the bouncy nature of the song's musical hook than to its inherent meaningfulness.
On the plus side, director/choreographer Dan Knechtges consistently found ways to make the numbers interesting, engaging, even exciting at times. Knechtges has a wonderfully dynamic sense of how to dress a stage, as well as how to find movements that exist within the idiom of the show. Particularly impressive was how he found ways to make the basketball moments seem believable without making them literal. I never got the sense that these were dancers who were trying to act like ball players, but rather that they were ball players who were also really strong dancers. (It would be interesting to see what Knechtges could do with West Side Story. Maybe, for once, we'd actually have some masculine, menacing Jets.)
Also, my heart goes out to the game and fresh-faced cast of Lysistrata Jones. Although I really wasn't a fan of the piece itself, it was great to see talented and energetic performers get a chance to show what they can do. Patti Murin in particularly was sweet and appealing as Lysistrata, as she was Off Broadway. Josh Segarra really seemed to have grown into his role as Mick, Lyssie's boyfriend, bringing a much stronger comedic sensibility and confidence to the role. Hopefully, we'll see these bright young performers, not to mention their equally talented castmates, on the stage again sometime very soon.