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Lysistrata Jones at Red Branch Theatre (review)

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Happiness is tucked away in an office park in Columbia, MD. Amid the chiropractors, computer businesses, dance schools and Asian delis is the Red Branch Theatre Company, currently the home of a sunny staging of Lysistrata Jones, the 2011 upbeat update on Aristophanes’ bawdy comedy by Douglas Carter Beane and Lewis Flinn. Although written in 411 B.C., the story and lessons in Lysistrata could not be timelier.

The message about women taking power and change into their own hands makes you wonder if Aristophanes was wearing a pink pussy hat when he wrote the classic Greek comedy about women fed up with war who refuse to have sex with their husbands and lovers until the fighting stops. The other themes of women owning and taking back their bodies, and learning to see their talents and gifts beyond being a sexual object under the male gaze is also eerily pertinent to the struggles women face today.

Cast members of Lysistrata Jones at Red Branch Theatre Company

Book writer Douglas Carter Beane and composer-lyricist Lewis Flynn changed the setting from the Greek city-states to an American school–Athens University. There, the basketball team, the Athens Spartans, hasn’t won a game in 33 years.

They don’t seem to care much–wedged in the comfort zone of mediocrity and lassitude, they’d rather concentrate on the post-game hookup parties with their cheerleader girlfriends. All that changes when Lysistrata Jones (Hailey Ibberson, a petite sparkplug of talent) transfers to Athens University and is determined to make a difference. Fed up with people (like her parents) who have simply given up on life, “Lyssie J” craves forward motion and victory at any cost.

Her quest comes in the guise of the basketball team, led by her boyfriend, team captain Mick (Patrick J. Campbell), whose swagger conceals a surprising secret about where his true passions lie. Lyssie J convinces her fellow cheerleaders–Lampito (Angeleaza Anderson), Myrrhine (Victoria Meyers), Cleonice (Tiara Whaley) and sister-in-spirit, librarian and slam poet Robin (Alex Levenson)–to deny their guys sex until they win a game.

Cast members of Lysistrata Jones at Red Branch Theatre Company

The tongue-in-cheeky song, “No More Givin’ It Up,” accompanied by twerk-like movements, spells out the ultimatum thrown down to the boys.

Needless to say, Mick and the gang Cinesias (Andrew Overton, hilarious as a hip-hop player who is really just a nice Jewish boy), Tyllis (Jason Quackenbush), ‘Uardo (Diego Esmolo) and Harold (Elad Ness) are not thrilled with the news they ain’t never gonna get it unless they get it in the basket. Lyssie J and squad’s manifesto is first greeted with incredulity–I mean, who takes what girls say seriously?–but as time goes on the guys become angry, defiant and vengeful. Their boy-band smooth song, “Lay Low” details their initial plan to just chill.

The women also go through emotional upheaval, trying to discover who they are and what their purpose is now that they are not in their primary societal roles as providers of sex. A team trip to a brothel presided over by the wise and wanton Madam (Taylor Washington, in superb voice and goddess-like demeanor in this role and that of the Narrator-Greek Chorus) is not the release they were looking for, as they too have been changed by the virtue movement set into motion by Lyssie J and the girls. By the end, the right Jacks are with the right Jills–and two Jacks find each other as well–and both genders have figured out their true natures and what gives their lives meaning.

And not to be a spoiler alert, but it’s not basketball. Lysistrata Jones is an optimistic mashup of “Glee,” “Step It Up,” “Pitch Perfect” and every other dance, music and singing competition show you’ve ever seen. The score is bouncy and catchy, full of hip-hop and dance tunes that contain all the noodling and vocal fry flourishes we know and love about modern pop music.

The choreography smashingly combines athletic cheerleading moves with the bump-and-grinding motions seen on the dance floor. The young cast shimmers with infectious energy, especially Hailey Ibberson as the determined and irrepressible Lyssir J, combining a Broadway belt with pop diva charisma. Her sidekick, the nerdy blogger Xander (Taylor Witt), is a winsome combination of ardor, smarts and unease in social situations.

As the narrator-Greek chorus, Taylor Washington brings a touch of Juno-like class and maturity to the youthful setting, also strutting her stuff in the role of a brothel owner. As Lyssie J’s sisters in celibacy, Angeleaza Anderson, Victoria Meyers, Tiara Whaley and Alex Levenson beguile as young women grappling with their identity when sexiness and attraction are out of the picture. There are abundant references to the original play and Greek culture in the musical, although they may fly over the heads of many audience members who did not, like Lyssie J, read the Spark Notes version of Lysistrata online.

It’s a living dimple of a show, the joyous personification of “Nevertheless, she persisted.” ———– Lysistrata Jones . Book by Douglas Carter Beane; Music and Lyrics by Lewis Flinn .

Featuring Angeleaza Anderson, Flora Aubin, Patrick J. Campbell, Diego Esmolo, Conner Gilbert, Hailey Ibberson, Alex Levenson, Sarah Luckadoo, Victoria Meyers, Elad Ness, Andrew Overton, Jason Quackenbush, Karen Shantz, Taylor Washington, Tiara Whaley, Taylor Witt, Ashley Zielinski. Direction: Stephanie Lynn Williams.

Lighting Design: Lynn Joslin. Scenic Design: Bill Brown. Costume Design: Stefany Thomas.

Props Design: Dana Fleischer. Choreography: Brandon Glass. Music Direction: Dustin Merrell.

Production Management: Melody Easton. Stage Management: Sarah Thompson. Musicians: Dustin Merrell, Rachel Sandler, Tiffany Underwood Holmes (piano, synth, conductor), Diego Retana, John Jeffries (guitar), Daniel Hehob, Seth Sprole (bass), Andry Bilberry, Jack Naden (percussion) Produced by Red Branch Theatre Company .

Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.

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