It’s always refreshing when university theatre programs find material that is age appropriate. With the recent production of AMERICAN IDIOT and now the current Studio Series musical, LYSISTRATA JONES, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music has filled the second half of their season with relevant, contemporary musicals.
But age appropriate doesn’t necessarily mean easy to cast. Especially in a show that requires this much athleticism and energy.
JONES takes the ancient play LYSISTRATA and updates the setting from Athens, Greece to Athens University. Lyssie J is new at the school; she can’t understand why the basketball team is not winning games. So she concocts a scheme with her fellow female students, who reluctantly agree not to “give it up” until the boys start winning.
Lysistrata Jones is played by junior Emily Morris, who does a wonderful job in the lead role. Her acting, singing, and dancing embody the triple-threat approach this program takes in educating its students. Her boyfriend, “Mick,” is played by the confident and handsome Zack Erhardt. Erhardt, last seen as Tom Sawyer in BIG RIVER is a versatile performer and this role calls for just that. Mick is conflicted; he feels a need to showcase his masculinity while hiding his love and affection for poetry. But he’s actually a tender-hearted romantic. Just don’t tell anyone. Erhardt’s vocal work on the song “When She Smiles” is a highlight.
In fact, the entire cast does a tremendous job with comic timing, solid vocal work, and the very energetic and intense choreography by Patti James. Standouts are freshmen Jordan Miller and Jenny Mollet as well as juniors Alec Cohen and Matthew Salvadore. I especially enjoyed the work of Michelle Coben, who is one of the most captivating performers at CCM as well as Karl Admunson, who in this role tackles an entirely different character than we’ve seen from him before. The rest of the cast (Emily Celeste Fink, Casey Wenger-Schulman, and Paul Schwensen) more than hold their own with the demands of the production.
Finally, rounding out the cast is Tyler Johnson-Campion as “Hetaira,” our narrator, host, and all-knower. This role is not typically played by a male in drag and when he first appear on stage I was torn. My first thought was, “we’re in for a treat tonight” as his charisma is powerful and entertaining. And then as the first number continued I began questioning the choice, wondering why CCM or director Emma Griffin would pick this show if they didn’t think they could cast it appropriately. And then as Johnson-Campion began to take charge of the stage as the show progressed, I realized that in fact he was the best “woman” for the job. His ironic, self-aware sensibilities tied this hilarious script together and I very much enjoyed his performance.
Technically, the show isn’t perfect. Performed in a modified in-the-round setup, there are minor blocking issues, especially given the number of facial expressions and asides delivered throughout the show. I think the band could be more vibrant, but this is likely a sound problem. The sound design in this space must be extra difficult because there almost always are issues hearing the actors.
Though there are some very interesting themes addressed, LYSISTRATA JONES isn’t going to change the world. But for two hours, we are transported to an entertaining place watching the future of American theatre hone their performance chops. And that’s more than enough for me.
LYSISTRATA JONES plays through this weekend at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Consevatory of Music. Tickets, which are free, are likely sold out however there is a waiting list that usually proves successful for those looking for tickets. Get there early and take your chances.