'Lysistrata Jones' updates war of the sexes

JENNIFER FARRAR - Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — In the never-ending battle between the sexes, sage advice from a philosopher that was written more than 2,400 years ago is still surprisingly relevant.

The ancient wisdom of Aristophanes has been hilariously updated in "Lysistrata Jones," the peppy new Douglas Carter Beane-Lewis Flinn musical about a modern-day college team of slacker basketball players continuing a 30-year losing streak, to the dismay of their more ambitious girlfriends.

This bouncy comedy, which opened Sunday night off-Broadway on the indoor basketball court of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, is performed by a talented, energetic group of attractive young actors who make the most of the athletic choreography, strong tunes and smart, witty lyrics. And they do it while shooting hoops at times, too.

Guided by the goddess Hetaira, (an outsize, confident and very funny performance by Liz Mikel), transfer student Lysistrata/Lyssie (a vivacious Patti Murin) urges the girlfriends of Athens University's contentedly losing basketball players to stop "giving it up" to the guys until they make an effort and win a game. But team captain Mick, (vigorously portrayed by Josh Segarra), also her boyfriend, leads the men's rebellious refusal to cave in.

Dan Knechtges directed and choreographed the production, keeping the performers in nearly constant motion. They enthusiastically sing while leaping through the air, bounding on and off benches, or while performing hip-hop- and calisthenics-infused dance routines with infectious beats. The onstage band, led by Brad Simmons, helps keep things lively.

Presented by Transport Group Theatre Company, the show is loosely based on "Lysistrata," the circa 411 B.C. classical anti-war comedy by Aristophanes, in which the wives of Greek soldiers withheld their favors to protest the constant absence of their men, who were always off fighting each other in pointless, endless wars.

Beane, a recent Tony Award nominee for the book to "Sister Act" has updated the anti-war message to comedically protest war between the sexes, with the added irony that these guys are more like anti-warriors, reluctant when it comes to both improving their team sport and to fighting for their girlfriends.

Flinn's musical numbers are seamlessly woven into the story, as when the guys' standoff upends all the students' relationships, nicely setting up Murin's big power ballad, "Where Am I Now," that ends the first act.

Beane has given the college kids comically recognizable racial and personality stereotypes, then wittily upends all the stereotypes by adding unexpected depth to many of the characters, and the dynamic troupe enacts their roles with a tongue-in-cheek sense of fun.

Lindsay Nicole Chambers and Jason Tam are particularly effective as nerdy types who transform entertainingly throughout the play as they gain confidence. All the students sing about their confusion and changing lives in a cleverly staged, cacophonous number late in the second act, "Right Now Operetta," that has them marching in place.

Skimpy, colorful costumes by David C. Woolard and Thomas LeGalley add to the fun, from the orange-and-blue cheerleading and basketball outfits to the togas and Grecian goddess motifs. Michael Gottlieb has worked miracles with lighting on the basketball court, enhanced by Allen Moyer's minimal but effective set design.

The requisite uplifting finale, "Give It Up!" (also the original title of the show) refers not to sex, but instead urges everyone to give up whatever is holding them back and become passionate about their dreams. The wit and charm of this entire musical enables "Lysistrata Jones" to deliver a good time with a positive message — and a hot cast.