PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Lysistrata Jones — Bosoms and Neglect
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of the new Broadway musical Lysistrata Jones, a reinvention of the 411 B.C. comedy by Aristophanes.
"Full-figured girls," as Jane Russell quaintly called her crowd, came back in favor Dec. 14 when Liz Mikel commandingly took charge of the Walter Kerr stage, strutting her considerable stuff through a thicket of horny collegiates, narrating, refereeing, doing motel madam, whatever Lysistrata Jones needed.
True to the conceit that this is a musical fun-poke at Greek mythology, she is draped in a scarlet toga, save for a breastplate of industrial steel that does what it can to conceal a rather animated left breast as she sashays about with genuine authority. The rest of the cast, God love 'em, seem to be sitting at the children's table playing something tame like Old Maid. In a sense, they are — this female-invented game of withholding sex until their men do what they tell them. It's quite old, this game. When Aristophanes originally told it in 411 B.C., the men had to stop making war. As Douglas Carter Beane re-tells it in 2011 A.D., the men are to stop their losing streak and win basketball games for dear old Athens U. Instead, these dudes take their woes to some understanding, hopefully helpful, souls at the Eros Motel.
Beane's partner, Lewis Flinn, served up a lively score of 13 songs to keep the youngsters in a pretty perpetual spin. Most of the numbers keep the plot racing.
The old Liberty Theatre on West 42nd, now reupholstered as a handsome nightspot, was the site of the opening-night Bacchanal, but just try to find it. It has a very inconspicuous entrance lost in the neon glare between Madame Tussauds and the AMC Empire.
Publicists with orange-and-white pompoms had to hit the streets to wave you in.
Director-choreographer Dan Knechtges — a name made for a marquee if ever there was one — was grinning ear to ear, pleased with the evening's impact.
"How can you not have a good time when the show is so joyous and the people are so much fun?" he defiantly asked. "You can't help but smile and have a good time." Clearly, he was enjoying his Broadway-directing debut, but this also happens to be his fifth show as a choreographer — following Spelling Bee, 110 in the Shade, Xanadu and Sondheim on Sondheim — and he pours it on pretty strong for his young and very game cast. "Those dancers work so hard. It's so funny because, at the beginning, they kept saying, 'We're going to be close to naked on stage. You can't be bringing in baked goods." I love to bake — and I used to bring in cookies. And now they keep saying, "‘No, bring 'em in. We're losing weight.'"
His secret weapon — the mighty Mikel — was discovered at the first stop on the way to Broadway. "We found her in Dallas," Knechtges recalled. "She was part of the theatre company there, and the artistic director said, 'You can have whoever you want, but I do have someone who would be right for this part. Would you see her?' And we said yes, and she came in, and we said, 'We have to have her.' She's a star."
Accordingly, the star made a star's entrance at the party — fashionably late — fancily outfitted in a free-flowing gown with shawl that covered all points of interest.
Beaming blissfully about her Broadway debut, she reiterated, "I started with the very first production that was done of it at the Dallas Theatre Center, and I've been riding the wave ever since." She didn't have to add, but did: "I'm grateful to be here."
The company hit Dallas without a star in place, thinking Whoopi Goldberg could be cajoled into the role of the omnipotent observer and all-round shady-lady, Hetaira, but they never had a chance to ask because Mikel so fully filled the bill — this, according to Mikel. I told her I heard they were after Twiggy, which produced a raucous Ha! from her and "No, you need a woman of substance."
She doesn't give out her measurements in numbers. "Well, I'll just tell you like this: Exciting-Enticing-Awesome." She repeated this, making the three stops on her body, then re-evaluated and tried it again. "Maybe, it's Awesome-Exciting-Enticing."
Let the record show that she has done her homework on her role. "I know she is all-knowing. She is wise. Hetaira, as a person in ancient times, was a courtesan, and she was the one who was really accepted in all circles social and political. Men would flock to her establishment. She paid taxes, was well thought-of as a business person, endearing to the community, even though she may not have been openly received.
"I think — well, I know — that I'm very fortunate that Doug and Dan and Lewis have so much belief in me. Lewis tailored the songs to highlight what I could do, and the same with Doug's writing and Dan's direction. They rallied around my strengths. It was a total rewrite effort along the way. I know there were some things that were included because of my crazy little sense of humor and my Texas twang."
Book-writer Beane, who is not above Kitty Dukakis jokes ("all those k's bring the house down"), had the look of a man who was very pleased with his work. "As any person who has ever written a play or a musical knows, 400,000 people pass and tell you it's bad, so, when the show finally happens on Broadway and it's what you wanted it to be, it is amazing, joyful, unbelievable."
And to think that the whole thing came to him in a flash: "Lewis and I were looking for something to do, so I said, 'Let's do a classic play and make it contemporary,' so we nailed Lysistrata, and I just said as a joke, 'Cheerleaders won't put out with their boyfriends until they win a game.'" And voila, a plot was born.
Beane's next scripting skullduggery includes a new play for Nathan Lane, to be directed by Jack O'Brien and a role-reversal rewrite of Rodgers and Hammerstein's television musical, Cinderella.
If Xanadu seems first cousin to Lysistrata Jones in its campy giddiness, that's became some of the same hands are involved in both. Prominent on the Beane team is the leading lady, Patti Murin, who found her husband (Curtis Holbrook) in the Xanadu cast. "I was a swing for the first six months of Xanadu," she remembered, "but, because of a lot of injuries that happened, I actually went on for opening night, and then I took over the part of one of the muses, and I understudied Kerry Butler in the star part."
Here, she started in the star part, which, in the playing, gets reduced to "Lyssie J," but she makes a pert spark-plug for this particular non-sexual revolution. "To share what I have created here with a lot of people has been amazing," she admitted.
The only real casualty of this revolution is her romantic relationship with the basketball captain, played by Josh Segarra, who was more up to the pressure of making the basket on stage. Murin, he said, had the most pressure scoring the last point. [Taking no chances, director-choreographer Knechtges decided to have two teammates hoist her up to the basket for an easy slam-dunk.]
"But, for me," Segarra happily noted, "I've been playing basketball my whole life so that's where I feel best — that's where I'm most comfortable — when I play on stage because that's when I get to show off a little bit and show I can play. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I get to do it. This is my dream: I've always wanted to play basketball or become an actor. And here I get to play a basketball player."
Midway through the play, his thwarted affections stray to the librarian on campus, played by Lindsay Nicole Chambers, "a genius," he said. "She has taught me so much. This isn't her debut. She's a veteran, and she has just been my rock."
He and the rest of the basketball team — Teddy Toye, Alex Wyse and Alexander Aguilar — are making their Broadway bows with this show.
"The whole team moved up. When they told us that we were all moving up, it was the best feeling in the world because there's always that fear that somebody's gonna get replaced — somebody who was a part of you for this journey — and we're all together. We did it downtown, and now we're doing it here. I couldn't be happier."
Replacing Segarra in Murin's heart for the second act is the team mascot, Jason Tam. A computer nerd, he blossoms into viable male in a rousing ditty called "Hold On," and Tam's character takes off with it. "I feel so lucky to be able to sing that because it's got such a great message. It's telling people to hold on — even when you think you're in the depths of despair and there's no hope left, to hold on."
A Broadway player since he was ten and in Les Miz, Tam was last seen as the injured Paul in the revival of A Chorus Line (In "Every Little Step," the documentary that John Breglio did on the recasting of A Chorus Line, his moving audition scene left the producers and the director in tears!)
"Hold On" happens to be Flinn's personal favorite of his songs. "Jennifer Holliday did a demo of it years ago in a different version. That song has been in my back pocket for a while, and I've kept tweaking it and changing it a little bit."
He characterized his score as contemporary pop. "Theatre pop, to me, seems a little lite, and I don't want this score to be a light CD-1 sort of score. I really wanted to sound authentic and of today, as if these songs could be on the radio today."
This is his Broadway debut, too, and it felt to him as if he were on the express track. "It's been a pretty fast process. It was two years ago that we were flying down to Dallas to start the rehearsal process. Six months ago, we were at the gym at Judson. So you're still pinching yourself and asking yourself, 'Is this really happening?' But we feel good about it, and that's the important thing."
Heading the opening-night guest-list for this basketball musical were Queen of the Court Billie Jean King, former Queen of the Mist Mary Testa and the future Queen of the Fairies, Titania, in CSC's spring Midsummer Night's Dream, Bebe Neuwirth. The latter, who putters with pottery, is calling her just-out first solo album "Porcelain" — for a reason. "I have thrown clay," she confesses, "but the porcelain clay body is both very strong and very fragile, and that speaks to a lot of these songs. There's fragility in strength and strength in fragility."
"Life is an 'and' proposition, not an 'or' proposition — you can do more than one thing," announced actor Bryan Batt, explaining his sudden turn to writing. "My new book [there've been two], 'Big Easy Style,' was released Oct. 4, and it has held No. 3 on the Amazon Design Book list since it came out." Following the same advice, apparently, is comedienne Rachel Dratch, who said she just finished writing a book called "Girl Walks Into a Bar."
Julie White, who owes her Tony for The Little Dog Laughed to Beane, showed up to support, freeing herself momentarily from an intense filmmaking spree: "I've finished doing a movie with Mr. Spielberg about Lincoln. I play a character named Elizabeth Blair Lee. You know the Blair House in Washington, DC? It's sort of America's guest-house. It was built by Preston Blair, who founded the Republican Party, and I'm his sparky daughter, Elizabeth.
"I also made a movie in August that's going to be at Sundance, so I get to go to Sundance. It's called 'Hello, I Must Be Going' [after Groucho's song in "Animal Crackers"], with Blythe Danner and John Rubinstein."
Then there was Zang Toi, Tony winners Victoria Clark and Cynthia Nixon, singer Lance Bass, writer-directorMoises Kaufman, Transport Group Theatre's Jack Cummings III and Barbara Walsh, NBC's Kathie Lee Gifford, a pair of Pennys (Fuller and Marshall), indie film actress Amy Volker, Stanley Bahorek of the upcoming Merrily We Roll Along at Encores!, Sunset Boulevard marrieds Alan Campbell and Lauren Kennedy (up from Raleigh where they run their own theatre), Sister Act director Jerry Zaks, National Endowment of the Arts chairman Rocco Landesman supporting his old Jujamcyn team, Rodgers and Hammerstein exec Ted Chapin, The Best Man helmsman Michael Wilson and Godspell's Telly Leung and
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