A legendary theater director and drama critic—let's just say it was Harold Clurman because, lord knows, he doesn't get enough props these days—once commented that every time he walked into a theater and saw musical instruments onstage, he knew he was in for a good time. There are five instruments onstage before the beginning of Lysistrata Jones, but even more enthusiasm-generating are the two basketball rims, complete with nets and backboards, bookending the stage. Visions of slam-dunks and rainbow treys are conjured. After all, next to theater, what's more fun than sports?
Well, not this musical. Unless you're a Lakers fan, circa 2014.
Like everything the Chance has done recently in its ascent of the ladder of OC theater, positioning itself as the best reason to care about local theater next to South Coast Repertory, there is nothing wrong with this production. The actors are talented and game, the choreography sinewy, the live band solid, with all the bells and whistles ringing and tweeting to full effect.
Lysistrata Jones at Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714) 777-3033; chancetheater.com. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 Sun., 2 p.m. Through March 9. $40-$45.
But even with the talent, hard work and sincerity, nothing can save the laughably awful story, generic music or emaciated characters. This is a developmentally disabled Hoosiers meets Whatever Awful High School Musical You Can Think Of meets ABC Afterschool Special. Even a visit to a whorehouse, a nod to a classic piece of Greek theater, and lots of pretty people onstage aren't enough to lift the terrible premise above its base, which is as loose, sloppy and unsexy as a 60-year-old crack whore going down behind a Dumpster at the local Denny's.
Premise: The perky Lysistrata Jones (the first name an obvious allusion to the Aristophanes play the show's creators, Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn, riff on; the second most likely a nod to Cheech and Chong's 1975 cartoon) has transferred to Athens University, a four-year institution of higher learning that, based on the 11 students portrayed, has a graduation rate of 20 percent and a basketball team that's even worse. For some reason, Lysistrata is hell-bent on correcting the 30-year, hard-court losing streak of the Spartans (yes, that's right). She organizes a cheerleader squad and tries to fire up the hapless five-member team. But neither the boys nor the girls (I hesitate to call any of them men and women) really care. The games are secondary to the partying afterward, and Lysistrata's sincere hectoring goes nowhere.
That is, until she meets Robin, a slam-poet/library nerd in fishnets who turns her on to Aristophanes' ancient Greek play Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens, tired of their men always waging war, decide to not give it up until the men drop their weapons. Somehow, Lysistrata gets her brain-addled cheerleading contingent to back up a similar plan: The team either wins a game, or it suffers from collective blue balls. But, of course, nothing goes as planned until—voila!—everything works out great!
If the creators had just stuck to a goofy, ridiculous musical comedy, all could be forgiven. But they seem to want to make a point. The second act is filled with overemoting songs about following your dreams and being true to yourself and other trite sloganeering that wears thin about one minute in. And since the creators desperately try to infuse something meaningful into the proceedings—and fail so poorly—it's all the more reason to bash them for debasing something as important as feminine empowerment through making it all about basketball. Apparently, owning one's body and sexual identity ain't a real cause unless the reason is to goad hoopsters into winning a game.
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The ensemble suffers from the fact that most of the characters are so insipidly drawn, but three of the major players do shine. Devon Hadsell's Lysistrata owns a powerful voice, and even though it's really hard to care about a character whose long, dark night of the soul stems from a bunch of hair-brained, hyper-emotional cheerleaders hating her, she at least has some dimension. Ashley Irene Nelson, as her bookish accomplice, has the most interesting arc and pulls it off nicely. And Camryn Zelinger's narrator/chorus/madam manages to come off as the most real person onstage, even though she's a completely gratuitous device.
The ensemble takes stereotypical characters and actually plays them younger than they already are, further muddling an already-dumb story. Then again, making these characters high-school age would seem to make sense, what with their cheer-section-like platitudes about not giving up and being true to yourself—either that, or a commercial for the U.S. military. But having a bunch of teenagers openly talking about sex and gyrating onstage has certain inherent problems—unless you really want to make a statement.
There are some zingy one-liners, and yes, it's always interesting to think about a play written in the 4th Century BC as still possessing legs. Unfortunately, this show crawls at best, meaning that somewhere on the southern terminus of the Balkan Peninsula, a certain comic playwright is turning over in his 2,400-year-old grave.