Girl Power in Anaheim

Lysistrata Jones (Chance)userpic=theatre_musicalsToday, we saw girl power on the stage and thoroughly enjoyed it. No, I’m not talking about the Spice Girls Musical. I’m talking about the original girl power, reimagined.

Perhaps I should explain this better. Back in 411 BCE, the Greek playwright Aristophanes (FB) debuted an comic play called “Lysistrata“. In this play, a woman named Lysistrata forces an end to the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers. This forces the men to negotiate peace. This play has been done many times over the years, and the strategies of Lysistrata have been adopted by many women’s groups to get men to do what they should do, not what their little brains tell them to do. In 2011, Douglas Carter Beane (FB) (book) and Lewis Flinn (FB) (music and lyrics) came together to retell the story in a contemporary fashion. This musical, called “Lysistrata Jones” was successful off-Broadway, but tanked in the larger Broadway houses. The Chance Theatre (FB) in Anaheim Hills is currently presenting the West Coast premier of “Lysistrata Jones“. I’ve had the music for a while, and so jumped at the chance to see the musical, even if it meant driving 120+ miles roundtrip. So this afternoon, down to Anaheim we drove for “Lysistrata Jones“.

Lysistrata Jones” updates the setting of Lysistrata to Athens University and their basketball team, the Spartans. The Spartans have been losing at basketball for over 30 years straight, and a new transfer student, Lysistrata Jones, who is dating the captain of the basketball team, wants to change that record. She convinces the other team girlfriends (Lampito, Cleonice, and Mhrrhine) to form a cheerleading squad to support the team. This doesn’t help. Then one day at the library, she learns of the story of her namesake from the library intern, Robin, and gets an idea. She, and the other girls on the cheer squad (including Robin, who has joined the squad) will stop “giving it up” to their boyfriends until the basketball team (Mick, Uardo, Tyllis, Cinesias, and Harold) win a game. However, this plot backfires, as the boys initially decide it is better to make no effort and lose, than to try hard… and lose. So the girls visit a local prostitute to learn how to encourage the boys better. Again, the tactic backfires. This continues back and forth (I’m not going to completely spoil the fun) until, as in the original story, the girls have their way. Egging them on throughout this is Hetaira, a Greek Goddess who assumes various roles, and Xander, a young man recruited from the library to serve as the Spartan’s mascot.

The college setting — with basketball and cheer — provides for lots of energetic music and eye candy (umm, stunning visuals) for all ilks in the audience. But beyond all of that is a good story, well performed, with lots of fun writing. There were numerous throwaway lines that were just hilarious. This is no surprise when you realize that Beane was behind the musical version of Xanadu as well, and that show amped up the parody. But behind the energy and the visuals and the fun was a strong and great message of empowerment of women to change the world — as as the play was updated — the message that people can do what is right for them and change the world. This is a great message to impart, buried within all that fun.

So were there weaknesses in the story? Yes. A number of the characters were stereotypical, but that’s common in theatre where things often need to be painted with a broad brush (especially in comedies). You’ll find similar stereotypes in similar musicals such as “Bring It On“. What I liked was that, in many way, the characters started out stereotypically but moved, in various measures, beyond those stereotypes.

The entire cast was strong, and there performances blended so well with the direction that I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. This is a good thing, and is a credit to the director Kari Hayter (FB) [and the assistant director, Crystal Hoskins Phillips (FB)]. One of the particular things I liked about the overall ensemble was the overall enthusiasm and fun they were having — this was clearly evident from the looks on their faces on numbers such as “Hold On”. They were just enjoying this show, its message, and this enjoyment was clearly broadcast to the audience. You can see some pictures from the show here.

Leading the charge to get the team to win were the girls, led by Devon Hadsell (FB) (Lysistrata). Her squad consisted of Klarissa Mesee (FB) (Lampito); Danielle Rosario (FB) (Cleonice), Chelsea Baldree (FB) (Myrrhine), and Ashley Arlene Nelson (FB) (Robin). Camryn Zelinger (FB) (Hetaira) added the Greek element and the narration, while doubling as the referee and the prostitute. All were great. I was particularly smitten by the energy of Devon Hadsell and Ashley Arlene Nelson in their roles, and the flexibility of Camryn Zelinger in the multiple roles she had to play. I was also amazed at how all of them found the energy to do all that dancing (which was extremely energetic) and not be winded. They were also very strong singers. They all were just fantastic to watch.

On the basketball team side were J. D. Driskill (FB) (Mick), Michael Dushefsky (FB) (Uardo), Darian Archie (FB) (Tyllis), Ricky Wagner (FB)( Harold), and Jackson Tobiska (FB) (Cinesias). Robert Wallace (FB) rounded out the guys as Xander, who the girls recruited to be the mascot. All of the guys had strong energy, and did a reasonable job on the basketball court (which for actors, is pretty good). My wife enjoyed watching the transformation of Robert Wallace’s character — he went from almost comic relief in the beginning to a well rounded character at the end.  Again, all were strong singers and performers.

Strong choreography is vital to this show, and the choreography by Kelly Todd (FB), assisted by Christopher M. Albrecht (FB), worked quite nicely. This was even more amazing when you realize that this show is in a new space for the Chance, and the space was not ready until a week before the show. As a result, all the movement had to be learned in a space that had a set with different spacing and objects. That the team succeeded so well is amazing.

Music was provided by a four-piece band under the direction of Rod Bahheri (FB), who played piano as well. Supporting him on-stage were Garrett Hazen (FB) on guitar, James McHale on bass, and Jorge Zuniga on drums.

Turning to the technical and support side — which was more amazing considering that this was the Chance Theatre’s first show in the new larger performance space, and that the technical work on this show couldn’t be started until construction was completed just a few weeks ago. The set was designed by Christopher Scott Murillo (FB), and consisted of a floor painted to resemble a well-worn wood basketball court with two hoops (lowered so that actors could reliably make shots). There were stairs in the back with the band on top, and bleachers on the side. This all worked quite well to support the story; it was aided by the prop designs of Daniel Bravo. The sound design by Ryan Brodkin (FB) worked well for the most part (there were one or two minor drops), and I particularly appreciated the use of reverb at points. The lighting design by Matt Schleicher also worked well, and I noticed quite a few new lights for the Chance (movers, scrollers, what looked to be some square halogens, and some LED lights). There were a few spots where actors were in the dark, but I’m sure that will be adjusted in future shows. Supporting all of this were Sarah DuVal (Dramaturg), Courtney Greenough/FB (Stage Manager/Company Manager),  Casey Long/FB (Managing Director), Masako Tobaru (Production Manager/Technical Director)., Jennifer Ruckman (Literary Manager), Marc Sanford (Associate House Manager), Erika C. Miller (Development Director), Teodora Ramos (Master Carpenter), Jeff Hellebrand (Box Office Associate), and Jocelyn A. Brown (Associate Artistic Director) . Oahn Nguyen is the Artistic Director for Chance Theatre.

Lysistrata Jones” continues at The Chance Theatre (FB) through March 9, 2014. Tickets are available through the Chance Box Office, and may be available through Goldstar or LA Stage Tix. Note: If you had starred the Chance Theatre at their old address on Goldstar, you won’t see notices at the new address. You need to star this address. This is the first show in their new, larger location, which is at the other end of large office complex from their original location. For those unfamiliar with where The Chance Theatre (FB) is located, it is right near the junction of Imperial Highway and Route 91.

The Chance Theatre (FB) has announced the remainder of their 2014 season. It consists of Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play” (April 25-May 18) [this was recently mounted at the Odyssey in West LA]; “In The Heights” (July 3-August 3) [being done this Spring in Thousand Oaks; Chance has the Orange County regional premier]; Jordan Harrison’s “Maple and Vine” (Sept. 19-Oct 12); the Bock-Harnick musical “She Loves Me” (November 28-December 28); and a holiday musical to be announced. We plan to head south again for “She Loves Me“, as this is rarely done in the area.

Dining Notes: Before the show, we had lunch at Slater’s 50/50 Burgers By Design. In a word… yum! 50/50 refers to the fact their burgers are half-beef, half-bacon. I didn’t have a burger, but opted instead for a pesto-sun dried tomato macaroni and cheese with grilled chicken breast. That was my final choice — I had to decide between that, a double grilled cheese sandwich with tomato-basil soup, or the build-your-own burger.

[Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.]

Upcoming Theatre and Concerts:  Read this closely, as the menu options have changed. Next weekend, February 22 I’m doing a site visit to Portland OR for ACSAC. But that doesn’t stop the theatre — we’ve going to the Brunish Theatre at Portland5 to see the Elton John/Tim Rice musical “Aida“. The last weekend of February was going to start with Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” at Two Roads Theatre, but the problematic reviews (decidedly mixed reviews on the performances, and nearly unanamous reviews that the show was too long and had too many long scene changes) led me to cancel it and replace it with Larry Shue’s “The Foreigner” at Crown City Theatre (FB). The next evening brings the MRJ Regional Man of the Year dinner at Temple Beth Hillel, followed by “Sex and Education” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on Sunday March 2 (moved from March 8). The weekend of March 8 now brings “Biloxi Blues” at REP East (FB) (moved from March 29). The weekend of March 16 brings Purim Schpiels, with Sunday afternoon bringing “Inherit the Wind” at the Grove Theatre Center (FB) in Burbank. March 22 brings “Harmony” at The Ahmanson Theatre (FB), followed by “Author, Author: An Evening with Sholom Aleichem” at the Santa Monica Playhouse (FB) on March 23. The last weekend of March is open, and will likely stay that way as we’ll be exhausted. April starts with “In The Heights” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on April 5, and should also bring “Tallest Tree” at the Mark Taper Forum, as well as the Southern California Renaissance Faire. April may also bring “My Name is Asher Lev” at the Fountain Theatre (FB) (as this runs through April 19). Current planning for May shows “The Lion in Winter” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at REP East (FB). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411.