By Carolyn Hayes
Crucial to the success of any theatrical endeavor is properly matching the entertainment value to the entertainment. Take, for example, a tongue-in-cheek, fluffy musical like “Lysistrata Jones” (book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Lewis Flinn): With its bon mot lyrics and conspicuously featherweight story, there’s plenty of ingrained pep for viewers to enjoy without much added effort. This is worth noting only because Meadow Brook Theatre’s manically high-energy production so handily clears that bar, going all-out in every moment in its dogged pursuit of maximum amusement.
Director Travis W. Walter takes the reins of an age-old story (literally), inspired by the bawdy ancient Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” here yanked into the present day. Then, the eponymous Lysistrata rallied her Grecian sisters to stop their men from warring by initiating a sexual strike. Now, the titular Ms. Jones (Kara Dombrowski), a newly arrived transfer student to Athens University, wants to use the same tactics to galvanize the school’s dismal basketball team into trying to win even one game.
Facile? Trite? Downright childish by comparison? Absolutely. But if anything, the script takes full advantage of the misappropriated motivation. And thanks to some deft writing and a grounded character foundation by Dombrowski, Walter raises the stakes to where they need to be.
It’s not hard to stay interested or even get invested in the doings of these 11 students, whose individual stories diverge as men and women face off in a battle of stubborn wills and soul searching 101. This is helped in no small part by a tone that calcifies its characters into a rarefied kind of “High School Musical” wholesomeness. The aggressively chipper deliveries work in moments of earnestness and avarice alike, and only grow more absurd as the subject matter creeps necessarily toward the degenerate. In the expert hands of this ensemble cast, the show’s moments of self-referential humor and sly commentary on race, class, masculinity, theater and pop culture slip in without deviating from the through line.
No ancient Greek knock-off is complete without an ancient Greek chorus; here, Tamara Anderson’s voice is brazenly omniscient as narrator Hetaira, and her suave, world-weary wisdom is terrific in scenes harkening back to the oldest profession.
Dombrowski proves a stellar leading lady, whose dim but determined “Lyssie J” courts the audience with effortless punch lines, sweetly high hopes, and killer vocals. In fact, the exceptional individual performances extend all down the bench and across the board, from the clique of differently motivated girlfriends (Karen Burthwright, Kathryn Terza, and Minami Yusui) to the starting lineup (Teddy Toye, Tim Dolan, Jason Williams, Michael De Souza, and Jake Wood) to the unpopular/angsty set (Hannah Dubner and Ben Holtzman). Just as importantly, they assemble into a stupendous team.
Beyond the many comic punches, the show and its ensemble join forces to deliver unending spectacles of sight and sound. The athletic choreography by Raquis Da’Juan Petree and dance captain Yusui feels almost infinite, extending even through the basketball game sequences. The show’s pleasant, upbeat rock-musical numbers are uplifted by Mike Duncan’s sound design, which keeps the instrumentals driving and the lyrics bouncing. For his part, music director Greg Kenna delivers the goods from on high, conducting the impeccable band from its cinderblock perch above Brian Kessler’s transformable gymnasium set.
Indeed, as much as the production’s tenor is sprightly, sharp and sparkly, the entire harmonious design scheme is right in step. Kessler leads with screaming school colors, and costume designer Corey Globke follows with loud and proud statement pieces that accentuate the garish hues. When the location changes, Reid G. Johnson’s lighting effects complete the transition, as well as having their own over-the-top say in moments of extreme grandeur.
The result is a textbook example of choosing an approach and attacking it from all aspects, in perfect accord. This cacophonous, ribald, energetic end product is so singularly campy, it transcends blase crowd pleasing. Some may not be poised to enjoy “Lysistrata Jones,” but the many who do should have a blast from beginning to end.
(FOR “REVIEW BOX”)
Meadow Brook Theatre, 2200 N. Squirrel Road, Rochester. Wednesday-Sunday through March 9. 2 hours, 10 minutes. $25-40. 248-377-3300. http://www.mbtheatre.com