Chicago Theatre Review
Give It Up, Greek Style
Lysistrata Jones – Refuge Theatre Project
As they say, Everything old is new again. A comedy written in Ancient Greece in 411 B.C. by the classical playwright Aristophanes has found a new life. In this cleverly updated adaptation by Broadway’s Douglas Carter Beane, featuring a snappy, pulsating pop/rock score by Lewis Finn, the basic plot and many of the characters’ names are much the same. This new version can be enjoyed in an exciting new Chicago production by Refuge Theatre Project set, appropriately, in the second floor gymnasium of Andersonville’s Unity Lutheran Church. Appropriate, because this contemporary retelling of Aristophanes’ classical comedy is about a losing, 21st century collegiate basketball team at the fictitious Athens University, and how the players’ cheerleader girlfriends decide to withhold sexual favors from them until the boys start making some effort on the court and winning a game or two.
This novel new musical had a critically acclaimed run in New York City during its Off Broadway production in the Village. However, when it was restaged for Broadway in 2011, the musical failed to drum up much box office interest and it closed within a month. And, although the musical was nominated for the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for Best Musical of 2012, the show failed to take home any prizes. But that hasn’t stopped its wild regional popularity, with the show finding new life with college, community and regional theatres, especially in locations where basketball rules.
In this, its professional Chicago premiere, the musical sparkles once again. Talented actor/director Justin Brill cleverly stages his production appropriately in a venue designated especially for basketball, generating all the excitement of an actual collegiate sporting event. Choreographed by Shanna VanDerwerker, with all the spirit and vigor of an aerobic workout, this cast busts more than a few of the right moves. The dances match the intensity and professionalism of this company’s singing talent, courtesy of Musical Director Annabelle Revak, who also plays keyboard and leads her talented four-member onstage rock band. Set within Evan Frank’s bright orange and blue scenic design, sparsely furnished with a table and some movable mat racks, this show flows effortlessly from scene to scene. Lit by Collin Helou and Jennifer Kutes, which is no small accomplishment in a cavernous gymnasium, and tastefully costumed by Brian Duncan in a style that can only be called “athletic Greek,” this show offers everything that Off Broadway audiences must’ve enjoyed.
And that includes a gifted group of young triple threats. Led by lovely, power-singer Mary-Margaret Roberts, as a gutsy Lysistrata Jones, or Lyssie J, as she’s nicknamed, Roberts makes this show sing, dance and play well with the others. She’s matched by her two talented leading men. Boyishly handsome Collin Sanderson, as team captain Michelangelo “Mick” Jackson, makes his unmistakable mark as Chicago’s newest leading man; and good-looking and likable, but appropriately nerdy, Kaleb Van Rijswijck wins over the audience as Xander Lee. All three of these gifted, young actors collectively ply their talents as actors who sing like birds and dance like crazy, melded into a winning, energetic trio of fresh talent.
The supporting cast is brilliant, as well. As the Greek goddess Hetaira, Gina Fancesca makes a bold, feisty narrator with a great voice. She effortlessly jumps in and out of the plot, sometimes telling the story, sometimes Lyssie’s friend and mentor and even as the saucy madame of the town bawdyhouse. Maisie Rose is adorably beautiful and brainy as Robin, the coed who prefers doing library research over seeking out romance. Both talented singer/dancers, these two actresses are standouts and will undoubtedly be seen in many more upcoming musicals. The ensemble consists of seven topnotch actor/singer/dancers who score big-time playing Lyssie’s cheerleading pals and Mick’s basketball team buddies. They include Jayla Williams-Craig, Mollyanne Nunn, Kyra Sorce, Ryan Armstrong, Dwayne Everett, Xavier Euzarraga and, especially, Miles Blim.
The only weak spot in this wonderful production is the sound. Staged in a gymnasium, the actors’ body mics aren’t always effective in projecting the singers’ voices beyond the echo of this reverberant space, or over the volume of the four-piece band. When it becomes difficult to understand Lewis Finn’s zesty lyrics or Douglas Carter Beane’s witty dialogue, the musical fails its audience. The score includes some really catchy tunes like “Right Now,” “Change the World,” “Hold On,” and two lovely ballads: “Where Am I Now” and “When She Smiles.” However, when this hardworking cast is able to be heard, as well as seen, the winning team of hardworking artists totally Give It Up, Greek style.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 20-November 19 by Refuge Theatre Project at the Unity Lutheran Church, 1212 W. Balmoral Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the theatre or by going to www.refugetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.