A sharp comedy with great choreography channels Aristophanes, until the music starts

'Lysistrata Jones' at the Gym at Judson. ()
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One of ancient Greece’s most enduring plays is being performed (in slightly altered form) on a basketball court in a church basement in the Village, with the dozens of audience members seated on folding chairs.

In ancient Greece, important theatrical productions occurred in grand odeons made of marble and stone, with thousands in attendance. But this Lysistrata is still important.

Or, rather, Lysistrata Jones. It starts with Aristophanes’ classic satire, in which the women of Athens withhold sex in an effort to force the men to end a war. But, as a modern musical comedy adaptation, the setting is now Athens University, a “less than competitive” school whose basketball team has lost 30 games straight. Head cheerleader Lysistrata Jones picks up her namesake’s mantle, getting her sassy, multicultural squad to withhold sex from their boyfriends on the basketball team until they start winning. The result is that nobody can score.

The book by Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed, As Bees in Honey Drown) is all gentle humor, and gets more smiles than guffaws; and although it’s about sex, Lysistrata Jones is less racy than a UPN sitcom. Beane has slipped in cheeky references to people currently in the news for their sexual escapades, from Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Anthony Weiner. (He also throws in people who haven’t been in the news for quite a while for any reason, from Kitty Dukakis to Kool and the Gang.) He knows how to build a joke: The phrase “the hoop is open” takes on a whole new meaning here.

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Dan Knechtges’ High School Musical-style choreography is maybe the key to what's happening here: it's spirited, youthful fun, whether it’s the cheerleaders doing a routine, the boys shooting hoops, or the ladies at a local brothel seducing their clients. The performers get quite a workout, and they never lose their half-serious expressions—smiles with just a hint of a sneer, eyes wide open under raised eyebrows. It’s a great ensemble piece, but the leads do stand out: Patti Murin as the perky title character who brings down the house with her Act I closer; Josh Segarra as Mick, the dreamy basketball captain with goofy hip-hop moves and a head full of poetry; and Liz Mikel as the sarcastic, buxom whore Hetaira.

Beane and Knechtges worked together on Xanadu—another musical rooted in ancient Greece—and, building on that show’s over-the-top score, they created a surprisingly sharp, smart comedy out of what might have been pure froth.

This time, though, the music is the weakest link. Lewis Flinn’s songs are competent. The opening and closing numbers are rousing, and in between he includes a largely traditional theatrical song (“Don’t Judge a Book”), a Green Day-ish rock song (“You Go Your Way”), and a Marc-Anthony-meets-’NSync bit of harmonic pop (“Lay Low”). The energy never reaches the level of the choreography, though, as the five-piece band seems subdued. (When’s the last time you wished the band played louder at a rock musical?)

But the big problem is that the songs simply aren’t funny, nor does it seem they were meant to be—with hardly any alterations, they could anchor an earnest dramatic musical on the same subject. The actors’ expressions and Knechtges’s choreography provide some moments of physical humor, but for the most part, when the songs start, the laughs stop.

And that’s what keeps this clever little oddball of a show, with all its fancy footwork, from scoring.

Lysistrata Jones is showing at the Gym at Judson, 243 Thomspon Street (Washington Square South). Tickets are $60. Call 866-811-4111.