Legally Blonde meets Glee meets Xanadu in Dallas Theater Center's latest, the world premiere of the hyperactive musical Give It Up! (forced exclamation point theirs). The show reflects obvious influences of those and other pop-infused Broadway and TV phenoms, but its actual source material is Lysistrata, a comedy from 411 B.C. by that ancient Greek cut-up Aristophanes. Rather than subject us to power ballads about the Peloponnesian Wars, however, book writer Douglas Carter Beane and composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn have moved the action from Athens to modern-day Athens University, located somewhere in musical comedy America. They've made the title character into a head cheerleader (played by Patti Murin) and turned the Athenian warriors into a loser basketball team more interested in scoring after the games than during.
Lysistrata, the original play, has its leading lady convincing the women of Athens to go on strike—no making love until their bellicose men stop making war. Give It Up! gives it away in the title. Lys and her cheer-ios stop giving into the team's sexual demands—it is presumed that all cheerleaders are raving nymphos—until the boys promise to focus on playing some winning b-ball.
Cute, right? Well, that depends upon your tolerance for tonsil-busting singing, dialogue that's screamed more often than spoken and crude jokes about Tiger Woods' infidelity and the efficacy of vibrators.
Like a restless, horny teenager, Give It Up! is so busy goofing around that its communication skills suffer. Is it a candyfloss piece, safe for consumption by tweens who've grown up on High School Musical? No, it's about 10 dick jokes too dirty for very young kids. Is it gay-kitschy like Hairspray or Xanadu, which put its Greek muse and her man in hot pants and roller-disco skates? Not nearly enough, though Beane wrote the book for Xanadu too. (It's coming to Dallas Summer Musicals April 6-18.)
Give It Up! also is 45 minutes too long, an hour longer than Xanadu, which isn't helping its second-act problems. Old audience or young, it's hard to withstand all the over-amped shouting and slambang-style acting for that long. If DTC is using its debut of Give It Up!, directed by Dan Knechtges, as an out-of-town tryout for an eventual Broadway run, the biggest hurdle (besides that iffy second act and a score that includes the lyrics "Where am I now? Now that I am here") might be deciding exactly at whom this show is aimed.
Right now the most compelling reason to see the show while it's at DTC is the hot cast of humpy young hunks and hunkettes imported from New York City. Most of them have Broadway credits from the aforementioned hits. Murin, a size-zero blonde with a plus-sized voice, has played the bitch-goddess Sharpay in HSM and appeared in Xanadu. Andrew Rannells, who plays Mick, captain of the team and Lysistrata's ready steady, was Link Larkin in the Broadway production of Hairspray and starred as Frankie Valli's mentor, Bob Gaudio, in the New York and road tour casts of Jersey Boys (it was here in 2008). Curtis Holbrook, in the second male lead as Xander—the non-athletic campus activist and, by the way, dynamite dancer—just left the Broadway revival of West Side Story in which he played one of the Jets. Lindsay Nicole Chambers, who is Give It Up!'s book-smart nerd-girl Robin, was on B'way in Legally Blonde and Hairspray.
The only local face in this crowd is DTC company member Liz Mikel. More about her role in a mo'.
In the cheer-ocracy of Give It Up!, women are: pretty and dumb; ugly and smart; or whores. In the first category are Lys and her pint-sized squadmates Mhyrinne (Carla Duren), Lampito (Katie Boren) and Cleonice (Noemi del Rio). (The odd names are from Aristophanes.) Alone in the second group is Robin, the high-IQ smart aleck with the Streisand profile who goes goony-eyed over swaggering Mick when he quotes Walt Whitman. The whores are played by the cheerleader actresses in different wigs and revealing skank-wear in a scene where the basketballers defy the no-sex ban by visiting a brothel run by a madam named Hetairai (Mikel).
The male stereotypes are just as shallow. Mick and his team—Cinesias (Telly Leung), Stratyllis (Justin Keyes), Gustaf (Preston Sadleir) and Uardo (Xavier Cano)—are p-hounds who regard all ladies as go-to hos. The other guy, campus liberal Xander, chases skirt with Clintonesque flair, pretending to be a sensitive feminist, then pouncing just when Lys starts to believe he's not a pig like the others.Singing at the top of their purty lungs about following their hearts and not being scared of the fight—every other number in Flinn's score sounds like one of those overwrought, cliché-laden "final two" songs on American Idol—the kids of GIU! learn lessons and fall in love (not just bed) in the end. The team wins a game. One of the players even comes out of the locker, er, closet and liplocks a gay teammate.So what if the black cheerleader, Mhyrinne, suddenly disappears because the same actress has to play a prostitute named Tiffany all through Act 2? And who's going to notice that the petite nerdlet, Robin, is one of the brothel whores wearing a different wig? And does it matter that Gustaf's Swedish accent is worse than a Muppet chef's?
Give It Up! asks the audience to give up more than two and a half hours of time to its Red-Bull-buzzed idiocy. We're not supposed to see these sloppy double-castings and cartoony caricatures. We're force-fed joke after cheapjack joke whose expiration dates are fast approaching. The clock's ticking on that gag about Woods and the cocktail waitresses. The bit that got the biggest laugh on opening night—a slam at the iPhone's propensity for dropping calls and texts—was growing moss while the actor was saying it. (New York playwright Beane's other plays, the comedies The Little Dog Laughed and As Bees in Honey Drown, are similarly afflicted.)
Some of this in GIU! is Beane's attempt to stay true to Aristophanes' practice of having characters crack wise about the politicians and celebrities of the day. But too often Beane has gone for the level-one laugh and not something truly witty that might be relevant next month or next year. The Kitty Dukakis joke is proof that he's not trying hard enough.
Which brings us to the person onstage who works most efficiently at elevating this froth into something meaningful. Liz Mikel doesn't overplay every line or over-sing every note and thus she nails it. Saddled with two of the fugliest costumes in theater history (thanks to the bad-night-on-Project-Runway designs of David C. Woolard), Mikel overcomes a polyester red toga and unflattering metallic-print jumpsuit to play "the big black lady who stops the show." She's ridiculously funny as Hetairai, the madam who prefers college basketball games on TV over college basketball players in her boudoir.
Now and then Mikel steps out of the wings of the Wyly Theatre to add some vocal heft to group numbers that her character's not even part of. She is an enormous asset to this production, lending her magnificent voice to songs that barely deserve it. At 6-feet-1-inch, she is also about a head taller than all but one of the Athens U basketball team. Seems only right that this cast has to look up to the real star of Give It Up!