By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Leather dildos, oral sex, untamable erections.These are the kinds of objectionable subjects that right-thinking Americans want to bar from their homes via the mighty V-chip.
The rest of us, however, couldn't imagine life without them. Neither could the ancient Greeks, those pioneers of such dangerous concepts as democracy and self-expression. They insisted that their sex comedies have a little sex in them, which Lysistrata certainly does. Written more than two millennia ago, Aristophanes' play remains ribald even by today's standards, which are not quite as degenerate as Republican presidential candidates and born-again family men like Bill Clinton would have us believe.
Lysistrata PLEASE!, a musical reworking of Aristophanes adapted by Jubilee Theatre artistic director Rudy Eastman, with words and music by Joe Rogers, retains the bawdy elements of the original while adding some hilarious touches of its own. It's Eastman and Rogers' most successful musical collaboration to date, and it offers audiences the most fun they can have at a Metroplex theater at present.
The story concerns a plot by the women of Athens, led by Lysistrata, to end the war between their city-state and neighboring Sparta. If the men don't lay down their arms, they don't get laid. In other words, Lysistrata employs that scurvy, underhanded tactic painfully familiar to most married men--the sex strike.
Things come to a head when the women storm the Acropolis and capture the Temple of Athena, which holds the state treasury. Without their war chest, the men can't prosecute their battle against the Spartans. They try to retake the citadel by force, but are repulsed by the females in a general melee. A war of nerves and attrition sets in, with the members of each side attempting to adhere to their principles in the face of increasing sexual frustration.
The twist is that this is a rhythm-and-blues musical, told, as Eastman reveals to the audience before the show, "as it would have happened in my neighborhood." So while the set depicts the columns, walls, and flag-stoned streets of Athens, the characters are mostly urban African-Americans who are prone to express their feelings in modern-day Motown. Hence the addition of the ejaculatory "PLEASE!" in the show's title (as in, "please, baby, please baby, PLEASE give me some of your fine, fine, superfine love!").
Though the dialogue, part Aristophanes, part Eastman, retains its snap, the real entertainment value of the play lies in Rogers' 15 original songs and in Keisha Breaker-Haliburton's witty choreography. There are at least three show-stopping numbers, including "Gonna Get Harder," a tune featuring Temptations-style synchronized stage moves with a hook borrowed from the Ohio Players. The song typifies the knee-jerk male response to just about any challenge, which is to get tough.
The biggest crowd pleaser is an overwrought, over-the-top tribute to the all-American woody, sung with Clyde McPhatterlike conviction by Kevin Haliburton and a men's chorus. Haliburton packs a lot of vocal punch in his compact frame, and his singing is one of the main pleasures of the play.
The true entertainer on stage, however, is Robert Rouse. A Jubilee veteran, Rouse wields a singing voice that can scratch like a cat or sweetly insinuate like a flattering lie. He also has an infectious comic presence that sets an audience laughing before he utters a single word.
The distaff side of the cast also features fine singing, particularly by Sheran Kayton, who shares a highly charged duet with Rouse in which they trade puns and put-downs. Renee Miche'al contributes both able vocals and considerable glamour to the proceedings, especially when she appears in a clingy black gown and delivers the coup de grace to the men's resolve. The other members of the female chorus have more enthusiasm than polish, but they are having such a good time that you barely notice. Of course, it's easy to have fun when you get to sing lyrics like, "I feel like a bitch 'cause I've got an itch," and, "No more jelly roll until you get control."
T.K. McDonald brings a studious restraint to the role of Lysistrata. The original "femi-Nazi," as Rush Limbaugh would put it, Lysistrata is often played as a reckless wild-woman. She is, however, the lone voice of reason in the play, and the only person on stage who speaks with the rationalism for which the ancient Greeks are famous. With her glasses and severely swept-back hair, McDonald is like a put-upon elementary-school teacher trying to deal with a classroom of rowdy kids on post-recess sugar highs. Unfortunately, her performance was marred by a series of flubbed lines which set a tone of amateurism early in the play that the other actors were forced to overcome. Granted, the word "Peloponnese" is not an easy one to spit out, but that's what rehearsals are for.
The biggest bouquet in this show goes to composer Rogers. On hand as musical director and piano player, he has crafted enough funny, tuneful songs (with some help from the Supremes, the Temptations, and about a half-dozen other Motown and R&B artists from which he gleefully steals) to make Lysistrata PLEASE! a show that could have a healthy life beyond the confines of the Jubilee.
It's also nice that Eastman didn't feel compelled to use this retelling of Aristophanes to belabor the audience with a message about modern-day feminism. The only message in the play regarding sexual politics is expressed in the lyrics, "Hey, hey, hey, it's still the same today." The real point of this production is for the audience to enjoy itself and have fun. If only more directors would begin at this logical but often overlooked square one.
Lysistrata PLEASE! runs through April 14 at the Jubilee Theatre. Call (817) 338-4411.