I saw two musicals this weekend, one a classy revival of a classic produced by Broadway’s leading “not-for-profit” in Broadway’s newest venue; the other a scrappy contemporary musicalization of a classic Greek comedy by a company dedicated to presenting works in locations that match the play with its environment. The first was Roundabout’s “Anything Goes” in the newly rechristened Stephen Sondheim Theatre; the other, Transport Group’s “Lysistrata Jones” presented at the venerable Judson Church’s gym, recently converted into an off-Broadway venue in response to the dwindling number of houses available for experimental new work.
“Anything Goes” may be the most revised (and revived) Broadway musical in the history of American theatre. The first legendary production started with a book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse that revolved around an ocean-liner having problems while at sea, but a disastrous fire on board a real ship weeks before the show’s out-of-town opening forced the producers to seek a rewrite of the script. Bolton and Wodehouse were no longer available, so Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse were brought in to revise the book with only a few weeks before the first try-out performances. That lumpy book has been the Achilles heal of this show for 75 years. However, its infectious score by Cole Porter has insured a never-ending stream of professional, community, and educational theatre productions. Roundabout’s production features yet another “new book,” this time by Crouse’s son, Timothy, and veteran Broadway librettist, John Weidman.
The new book certainly makes the show sail more fluidly, although the libretto is still the evening’s least successful element – overly long and unnecessarily talky. But director-choreographer Kathleen Mitchel knows how to keep the audience entertained with a corny book, beautiful ballads, and knock-them dead production numbers – tap dance is back on Broadway! The cast is full of legendary (and soon-to-be legendary) Broadway talent with the likes of Joel Grey, John McMartin, and Jessica Walter in supporting roles. At the top of the heap is Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney, the proverbial “bad girl” with a heart of gold. Ms. Foster, already the darling of the current musical theatre scene, is destined to win this year’s Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical.
As entertaining and sumptuous as “Anything Goes” is for an audience starved for an old-fashioned musical, I found “Lysistrata Jones” to be much more fun and just as traditional, in its own way, as this 1934 relic. The creators are hardly newcomers to on- and off-Broadway. Douglas Carter Beane, the librettist, has had numerous hits (and a few misses) on- and –off, including “The Little Dog Laughed,” “As Bees to Honey Drawn,” “Xanadu,” and the current “Sister Act,” for which he is billed as the “play doctor” (i.e., “additional material”). The music and lyrics are by Lewis Flinn, who, in addition to a very successful career as a commercial music composer, has strong ties to theatre including several small musicals and scores for plays by Beane and the flamboyant satirist Charles Busch. As with “Anything Goes,” “Lysistrata Jones” is the beneficiary of a director who also choreographs, Dan Knechtges, who has overseen many well–received shows on- and –off: most recently “Sondheim on Sondheim,” “110 in the Shade,” and the “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
Like the less-than-credible mixture of low-life, high-life, and everything in-between in “Anything Goes,” “Lysistrata Jones” is also built around a rather “hokey” premise. An adaptation of Aristophanes’ classic anti-war comedy, this contemporary remake sets a group of cheerleaders against a rag-tag college basketball team that is more interested in the sexual romps that follow their poor performance on the court than turning around their losing steak. As in the Aristophanes’ original, the girls decide the best way to exert their power over their male paramours is to refuse to “give it up” for them until they win a game. But Messrs.’ Beane, Flinn, and Knechtges have turned this rather thin material into a charming and engaging satire of contemporary college culture full of pointed humor and snappy production numbers.
Here’s a show where the songs actually grow out of the plot, not simply given an excuse by the plot. The girls sing “No More Giving It Up” as their stirring call to action and the boys respond with “Lay Low,” their refusal to give in to their girlfriends’ fiendish plot couched in the dialect of their would-be hoody heritage. The show is full jabs at middle-class youth’s fixation on sounding and acting like they grew up in oppressed urban cultures. At one point, the lone African-American on the basketball team asks his white teammates, “why are you all talking this way; I’m the only black guy here.” The boys thrive on prancing “like bros;” the girls act as if they live for sex. “Give up giving it up,” declares one of the wannabe cheerleaders, “what would I do, declare a major or something?”
Each character is given distinct qualities that both define and confound the college stereotypes. Our lead jock, Mick (it’s all in the name), is an English major able to quote Whitman and Dickenson at length. The comic book action-movie loving odd-ball ballplayer, Harold, has an interest in Robin’s relationship with Batman that goes way beyond simple idol-worship. The political blogging geek, Zander, is drafted by the girls to act as the team mascot and chief party producer — “Wow,” he declares, “a party without a big thermometer [to tally donations].” And the rabble rousing Lysistrata Jones thinks she loves the lead jock but ends up with a totally unexpected boyfriend as the show’s mixed up relationships resolve themselves with the aplomb of a French farce.
The cast is uniformly talented and sells every moment with conviction. In the leads, Josh Segarra and Patti Murin are charming and as adept at musical multitasking (singing, dancing, etc.) as their Broadway counterparts, Sutton Foster and Colin Donnell. Lindsey Nicole Chambers makes the most of the classic wallflower librarian turned passionate lover by the play’s end. Jason Tam plays the geek-mascot with total abandon and delivers one of the show’s more memorable musical numbers, “Hold On” as he discovers that that he might want to “give it up” for the girl of his dreams. Liz Mikel is a big, brassy, rhythm and blues singer who plays the “Greek Chorus,” singing her way through the play’s transitions with a voice and presence that, like the Greek Choruses of old, makes the audience sit up and listen.
The staging is inventive. Transport Group is particularly adept at producing in venues related to the play and the gym at Judson Church is the perfect locale for this show. On the way in, I had missed the explanation on the wall that the Judson facility had recently been converted to a theatre with state of the art technology, so I took the play’s set as the remnants of the days when basketball was actually played in the church gym. Dan Knechtges’ staging and choreography plays with these youths’ fantasies with street culture and turns the basketball games and cheerleading into remarkably entertaining production numbers. The light-rock music by Lewis Flinn is fun and several of the songs are engaging, even if the lyrics are not exactly tinged with Cole Porter sophistication.
In short, I “gave it up” for “Lysistrata Jones.” It made me feel the type of joy I imagine the original audiences for “Anything Goes” must have felt. It’s doubtful that any revival of Porter’s classic could have that effect on me since I have seen numerous productions over the years. Both are pretty silly entertainment for entertainment’s sake. But there is something very special about discovering a fresh, brand-new show that brings many of those old-fashioned elements into a thoroughly enjoyable evening in musical theatre.