By Barry Reszel
When High School Musical meets Xanadu, the commingling spawns a slightly raunchy, hysterical, weird, Grecian-inspired, shallow relationship-y musical with basketball undertones called Lysistrata Jones.
And when Lysistrata Jones meets Chicago’s most avant-garde musical theatre company, Refuge Theatre Project, the marriage is a slam dunk.
Performed by a ridiculously talented ensemble cast in the gymnasium at Andersonville’s Unity Lutheran Church, popup venue maven Refuge turns the joint into various locations in and around fictional Athens University. Most notably, it’s the home court of a losing basketball team that makes Northwestern football of the 1980s (record: 19-90-2) seem accomplished by comparison.
Based on the Greek comedy, The Lysistrata (written by Aristophanes and originally performed in 411 BC), in which the women of Athens refuse to have sex with their husbands and lovers until the long-lasting Peloponnesian War is finally over, Lysistrata Jones offers an updated riff. The modern-day version by Douglas Carter Beane (book) and Lewis Flinn (music and lyrics) focuses on an Athens University cheerleader, Lysistrata Jones, who convinces the other girls to withhold sexual favors to their boyfriends, members of the school’s long-suffering basketball team, until they finally win a game.
And out of that premise comes tension; revenge; hilariously inappropriate comedy (“I’m as moist as a snack cake”); and some phenomenal singing and dancing. A full plot summary and production history, including a very short 2011-12 Broadway run, may be read here.
The Refuge production is directed and choreographed by the husband-wife team of Justin Brill (director) and Shanna VanDerwerker (choreographer). Utilizing half the gymnasium’s basketball court as the stage, the platform is perfect to show off the 16-member cast’s flawless execution of VanDerwerker’s exuberant, mesmerizing choreography. And creative movement of tumbling mats and various accessories pull numerous scenes into more necessary, intimate compartments. Some terrific lighting design by Collin Helou and Jennifer Kules accentuates the fine staging.
In front of the stellar ensemble is a bevy of lead talents. At the helm is Gina Francesca as the hilarious Greek mistress/narrator with the booming belt, Hetaira, and Mary-Margaret Roberts as the dulcet-toned, perky title-named cheerleader.
Slackard basketball-playing partier Mick is perfectly played (and sung) by Collin Sanderson. Sub-leads Kaleb Van Rijswijck (eccentric Xander) and Maisie Rose (bookish Robin) each impresses with strong acting, vocals and dance.
Vocal highlights in an overall high-energy songbook include two gorgeous ballads: “Where Am I Now?” sung by Roberts, and “When She Smiles,” sung by Sanderson. Performers should note that each of these is an excellent consideration for auditions; casting directors will applaud the choice over yet another angsty Jason Robert Brown selection.
All this said, there’s a significant fly in this Lysistrata Jones staging’s ointment that’s directly tied to Refuge’s ambitious mission: “We produce contemporary musical theatre in found spaces creating a unique, affordable, only-in-Chicago theatrical experience.” In short, the acoustics in this pop-up space are that of every middle school operetta; they suck. And while it’s possible to fight through the din, concentrate and hear the solo ballads and tight-harmony duets, the majority of this songbook is made up of powerful all-cast numbers that simply get lost in the rafters. That’s a shame, because this is one talented vocal group backed by equally able musicians led by Annabelle Revak.
But let it be known that this cast is every bit as terrific while busting a move. So this reviewer encourages patrons to focus on the visual and enjoy the sound as able. At $25/ticket, Refuge still offers the best professional musical theatre bargain in Chicagoland. Attendance at a performance of Lysistrata Jones should be a chalk decision.
Refuge Theatre Company presents “Lysistrata Jones” through Nov. 19 at Unity Lutheran Church, 1212 W. Balmoral Ave., Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Zeke Dolezalek.