Imagine an R-rated version of a Disney Channel movie musical, and you’re ready for the funny, frothy mix of pep, pop and wink-wink naughtiness that is “Give It Up!” Based loosely — very loosely — on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata,” the 2,000-year-old Greek comedy about women who wage a peace campaign by withholding sex from their warrior husbands, this promising work-in-progress is a spirited delight in its Dallas Theater Center world premiere. With minor tweaking and tinkering, it could eventually make the move to Broadway and possibly a subsequent bigscreen reiteration.
After scoring with his campy stage adaptation of “Xanadu” — perhaps not coincidentally, another project with Greek roots — playwright/librettist Douglas Carter Beane has cleverly transformed Aristophanes’ ancient scenario about sexual politics into a contemporary musical comedy with the raunchy-but-sweet flavor of an “American Pie” romp.
In Beane’s updated and relocated version, lovely Lysistrata Jones (Patti Murin) is head cheerleader at Athens U., a Middle American college where the chronically losing basketball team is said to be quite literally cursed. But the underachieving players don’t mind, as long as they have ready access to cheerleaders willing to, ahem, give it up.
The status quo is seriously challenged only when Lysistrata boldly goes where no cheerleader has gone before — the campus library. There, she is inspired by aggressively non-glamorous student librarian Robin (Lindsay Nicole Chambers) to borrow a page from Aristophanes’ playbook.
Specifically, Lysistrata sets out to “encourage” better roundballing from boyfriend Mick (Andrew Rannells) and his fellow players (Telly Leung, Justin Keyes, Preston Sadleir, Xavier Cano) by conspiring with her sister cheerleaders (Katie Boren, Carla Duren, Noemi Del Rio) to issue an ultimatum: “No More Givin’ It Up” (as the threat is bluntly phrased in one of the show’s better tunes) until the cocksure losers become dedicated winners.
Mick, arguably the most slackerish college hoopster in NCAA history, doesn’t take kindly to threats — especially when issued by a mere woman. He vows to seek relief by accompanying his buddies to the best little whorehouse in the area. The seedy Eros Motor Lodge is run by curvy, corpulent wisecracker Hetairai Johnson (Liz Mikel), who also serves as the show’s narrator, commentator and overall mistress of ceremonies.
But, gee whiz, the basketball players are basically too nice to actually do anything with, well, you know, prostitutes (except for one tough-talking but soft-hearted fellow who chastely romances one of the heart-of-gold types). And when opposites start to attract — Lysistrata falls for Xander (Curtis Holbrook), a campus crusader who never tires of flapping his left wing, while Mick even more remarkably reveals a sensitive side when smitten by Robin — it’s only a matter of time before games are won, lovers are reunited and, presumably, legs are uncrossed.
Mirroring the meticulous ethnic mix in the casting, composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn borrows freely from a variety of musical styles, running the gamut from Latin beats (“Lay Low”) to R&B sass (“I Don’t Think So”), and including a healthy sprinkling of pop concoctions that would be right at home on a boy-band song list. Strictly speaking, there’s no show-stopping number that sends you home humming. But overall, the effect is consistently entertaining.
Director-choreographer Dan Knechtges keeps everything bouncy, and occasionally bawdy, without pushing too hard. (He could pick up the pace, however, in the slightly draggy sequence where the players meet the hookers.)
Set designer Beowulf Boritt provides simple but serviceable designs for Athens U. and the Eros — complete with scene-setting columns that double as bookshelves — via an exceptionally imaginative commingling of humongous bathroom tiles, neon signage and strategically positioned door frames.
Beane peppers the dialogue with zingy one-liners and topical allusions — so topical, in fact, that constant rewriting may be required as the show heads toward Broadway. (Uproarious nods to Tiger Woods and “wise Latinas” could quickly turn stale.)
A more serious problem: Cinesias (Leung), an Asian player determined to express himself as a gangsta rapper, initially dates an African-American cheerleader (Duren) he refers to as his “ho,” then later becomes involved with a genuine working girl (also played by Duren). This unfortunate whiff of racial stereotyping likely won’t play well with some sensitive audiences.
On the other hand, even the most PC audiences will chuckle at the way Joel Schumacher’s “Batman and Robin” is used — offstage, of course — as a kinda-sorta make-out movie for two gay students.
Performances across the board are in perfect-pitch harmony with the material. Mikel dominates every scene in which she appears with her formidable size, singing ability, and deft deployment of imperious sarcasm, while Murin makes a pleasing and persuasive transition from ditziness to self-assurance.
Other standouts include Rannells, who might be even funnier if Beane better prepared the audience for Mick’s secret sensitivity; Chambers, who makes a nerdy firebrand irresistibly sexy; and “Xanadu” vet Holbrook, who does something very similar by getting the idealistic Xander in touch with his inner hunk.
For all the talk throughout “Give It Up!” about a mysterious “curse” on Athens U., there’s never any attempt to explain its origins or longevity. By the end of the evening, however, there’s no doubt it’s been lifted.