NEW YORK — Do they give Tony Awards for best abs? If so, there's really only one clear winner so far this season – "Lysistrata Jones."
The Douglas Carter Beane-written musical, which opened Wednesday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, features a locker room worth of muscular guys and girls, all dancing in tank-tops, cheerleader skirts or even less. The musical itself, though, needs some more time in the gym.
While no theatrical air ball, "Lysistrata Jones" isn't a slam dunk, either. It's got terrific songs by Lewis Flinn and an energetic cast, but the book is too derivative, a few of the actors seem overmatched, the choreography from Dan Knechtges is merely serviceable, and there aren't enough killer jokes.
Beane – whose play, "The Little Dog Laughed," earned a Tony nomination and who also wrote the cult movie "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" – stumbles somewhat with this updating of Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata."
Beane has taken the 2,400-year-old comedy about Athenian women withholding sex until their men stop fighting and plopped it to present day Athens College, where the basketball team hasn't won in decades.
Enter a troublemaking transfer student – Lysistrata Jones, played with winning spunk by Patti Murin – who creates a cheerleading squad and convinces all the girls to cease carnal favors until the team records a win. It's basically a sex strike – what appropriate timing against an NBA season stalled by a lockout.
"This losing streak is just an excuse to make everybody give up," says Lysistrata.
"We can't win, get it? What, you think I like losing? This is the hand we got dealt, OK? And we have to live with it," says the hunky basketball team captain and secret poetry lover, played with smarmy charm by Josh Segarra.
What ensues is like a cross between "Porky's" and pretty much every teen movie since "Porky's": Lots of misbehaving, sex jokes, a trip to a brothel, regret and then everyone reconstitutes in different combinations. The head cheerleader falls for the geeky guy, the captain of the basketball team falls for the awkward girl, a gay couple emerge, and everyone enjoys themselves at an end-of-game bacchanal.
Using these cliches, Beane has hidden a Trojan Horse, so to speak. His play reaches for a discussion of fatalism and free will, of the bravery it takes to stop the status quo and risk everything, and even perhaps of American exceptionalism. The trouble is that peeks of these larger themes are lost amid the raunch.
Beane has thrown up all kinds of jokey references, including making fun of Mel Gibson, PETA, the iPhone's digital assistant Siri, and Joel Schumacher. Some are a bit dated – Kitty Dukakis, anyone? – and some are so topical they seem forced, like Lysistrata's taunt to the boys: "By the time we're done doing our sexy new cheers, you'll be readier for sex than Newt Gingrich's wife after a trip to Tiffany's."
The songs pumped out by a seven-piece band above the stage, on the other hand, are really good, especially the slinky pop of "Lay Low," the beautiful "When She Smiles" and the funky "Hold On." Murin has just one chance to show off her pipes and she does so in the Act 1 torch song finale, "Where Am I Now."
Beane and Knechtges, who also directs, last worked together on the equally Greek-ish "Xanadu," which was just as silly and frothy and sarcastic, but somehow had a sharper edge. Beane shifts from arch to sincere but it's sometimes not clear which is being intended, as in the time one of his characters invokes the memory of Susan B. Anthony to stick with her dream.
In "Xanadu," Beane had a terrible movie to draw on. Here, he has conjured up all the typical stereotypes from many teen movies – and already heavily parodied in such films as "Not Another Teen Movie" – like the hot and fiery Latina bombshell, the glasses-wearing geeks, the sassy black mama, and the rich white kid who thinks he's ghetto. But he hasn't done much with these characters other than present them.
Most of the dozen cast members are quadruple threats – asked to dance, sing, act and shoot baskets on stage. That's no easy feat, but few triumph. Of the supporting cast, Lindsay Nicole Chambers reveals solid comic and physical timing, LaQuet Sharnell sings very well, but Jason Tam as Xander seems uncertain of himself. And Liz Mikel, with her fantastic voice and strong stage presence, keeps the show alive. Yet this buxom, funny woman is asked at one point to strip down to a bodysuit in a moment that seems exploitative.
It was all funnier – and perhaps unexpected – before: Earlier this year, the Transport Group presented "Lysistrata Jones" in a 99-seat basement church gymnasium in Greenwich Village. The unorthodox setting was perfect for the material.
Now in a 945-seat Broadway theater, it seems a difficult fit. Allen Moyer's sets are a mix of stripped-down – his moveable racks of lockers have come with him uptown – and trying-too-hard, like a glitter curtain and digital scoreboard. A wall of lights is put to good use but the show's visuals haven't really made the leap.
Maybe it's the jump to the pros that has rattled this show. When it was stumbled upon at Judson Memorial Church, there was a surprising jolt: The quality was really high in such an unusual place. But the show is now wilting under the white lights of Broadway and the air is seeping out of the ball.