Chance, the Orange County small theatre juggernaut, has a new space. It’s in the same nondescript light industrial complex as its former home, but the space is larger, more flexible, and they have been able to configure an inviting lobby for patrons, along with vastly improved ticketing, snack bar, and bathroom facilities.
To kick off the new location, Chance has secured the West Coast premiere of Lewis Flinn and Douglas Carter Beane’s musical, Lysistrata Jones. Its high-energy production proves an excellent match to Chance’s strengths and to its black-box space.
Mr. Beane, known best for The Little Dog Laughed, a story of gay panic in Hollywood, and the musical, Xanadu, mines familiar territory from those shows in his book for Lysistrata Jones – only this time he isn’t saddled with a silly film story and can go directly to a classic source (Aristophanes’ still-relevant sex comedy where women were able to stop a war designed only to assuage male egos by withholding sex from their would-be warriors). Only, these warriors are college basketball players and the women in their lives are their cheerleader girlfriends, who are frustrated that the team never wins and the guys seem not to care. A bit of gay panic among the basketball players makes its way into the story as well.
Cagily setting his work at “Athens University,” one of those easy-to-get-in-but-you’ll-never-get-out institutions, Mr. Beane has written an ideal college theater department musical. The plot hits on most of the standard college student anxieties about love and romance while couching its jokes in hipster terms and turning some cultural stereotypes on their heads. For example, two of the characters, including one of the basketball players, love poetry and can be heard reciting lines from poets such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, as well as a bit of the Aristophanes original, though not in the original ancient Greek.
Mr. Beane’s book was nominated for a Tony Award, and once the show gets going and the one-liners start flowing you’ll know why. For the right crowd (and Chance audiences would “get” most or all of the jokes) it’s a laugh-riot.
Mr. Flinn (who happens to be Mr. Beane’s partner in life as well as in writing) has written a score that is tinged with hip-hop but also infused with Broadway. It loads up on youthful energy and provides a bunch of solo opportunities for various cast members. It’s not a great score, but it soars especially in the act-closers, “Where Am I Now,” and “Give It Up.”
Chance tends to cast a lot of college students or recent grads in its musical productions, so they start with the sort of energy that this show demands. But, the professional environment allows for a greater sheen than might be achieved at the local university; here, the primary object is to draw a crowd, while in college learning is the operant goal. Popularity with audiences is nice but not required.
Chance’s new black box theatre is wide enough to allow Christopher Scott Murillo to design a basketball court of reasonable size, with bleachers at either end along with a raised platform that can transform for a variety of uses, including housing the four-piece band, directed by Rod Bagheri. While director Kari Hayter uses all of the areas of the set, keeps things moving and directs audience attention with skill, it is, as is often the case at Chance, resident choreographer Kelly Todd’s work that transforms good performances into something special. Using the stage space creatively, and achieving outstanding execution by her young cast, Ms. Todd pulls off a virtual feast for of coordinated movement for audience eyes. [php snippet=1]There isn’t a weak link in the cast, but there are some standouts. As the title character, Devon Hadsell has a big voice (big enough to overcome frequent problems with the sound at the preview performance I saw), and she knows how to use it. Veteran Chance performer Camryn Zelinger carries a lot of the acting load with style as a woman whose virtue may or may not be easy. J. D. Driskill makes a solid leader of the basketball team, and for a big guy he moves with a lot of grace. But, Robert Wallace once again pops out of the crowd as the studious Xander who gets pulled in to pose as the Spartan mascot, an ironic choice for a university based in Sparta’s rival city-state. Mr. Wallace did the same thing for me in playing Bernardo in Chance’s thrilling West Side Story and as Black Fox in the company’s solid-but-less-thrilling Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. He deserves to be watched as he finishes his college career to see if he can rise above the crowd in productions other than the ones at Chance.
Lysistrata Jones runs through March 9. This show might not be done in San Diego anytime soon, so it’s worth the 100-mile drive, both to become acquainted with Chance and its work and to catch its take on a musical that aims to be hip and often achieves it.
Performs Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm, and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are $35-$45.