- Lawson Taitte’s review in The Dallas Morning News
- Mark Lowry’s review for Theater Jones
- John Garcia’s review for Pegasus News
- David Novinsky’s review for Frontburner
- Elaine Liner’s review for the Dallas Observer
- Arnold Wayne Jones’ review for the Dallas Voice.
When did ancient Athenian theater get so entertainingly . . . slick?
Give It Up! is the boisterous re-interpretation of Lysistrata by Tony-nominated bookwriter Douglas Carter Beane and composer-lyricist Lewis Flinn. Lysistrata, as you surely remember, is Aristophanes’ provocative satire of the Peloponnesian War, the exhausting, 70-year-long struggle between Athens and Sparta that, in the play, finally leads the women of Athens to deny their men any sexual healing. Although neither unreservedly pacifist nor feminist, that’s how the comedy is often played. But it remains a radical landmark for its obscenely explicit views of sexual relations, its jabs at official wisdom and, yes, for showing a defiant, active lead female in a male-dominated society.
At the Dallas Theater Center, Give It Up! is about as radical and thoughtful as a pompom. Set in Athens University, where a losing basketball team prompts the cheerleaders to ban the boys from their bedrooms, the show is a bawdy, gaudy, very up-to-date boombox. it’s a quip-ish, thoroughly disposable, pop musical.
If only there was more of Dallas or the Dallas Theater Center in it. And if only it was maybe 15-20 minutes shorter.
For decades, the Theater Center has longed for the national spotlight that it had at its start with founding artistic director Paul Baker. National approval is still what counts as success in North Texas minds (although hardly just in North Texas minds). To get it now mostly means pipelining a show or a playwright to Broadway. Compatriot (that is, competitive) resident companies against which the Theater Center has measured itself have managed it — notably Houston’s Alley Theatre, which won a regional Tony after it provided composer Frank Wildhorn a launching pad for his pop-shlocky Jekyll and Hyde.
Thank the god Dionysus — the presiding deity of Greek theater who surely was an influence on this project — that Give It Up! is a sharper entertainment than that. Yet former Theater Center artistic director Richard Hamburger caught grief for years from area theater artists for doing what current artistic director Kevin Moriarty is essentially being hailed for here: When it comes to the cast and the “creatives,” everything in Give It Up! is pretty much imported: lock, stock and Doric columns.
OK, not the columns. Beowulf Boritt is becoming something of a ‘house’ set designer for musicals at the Theater Center, having already done the chores for Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Who’s Tommy.
Two considerations distinguish Moriarty’s efforts on this point. First, he has established an acting company — although only one member, Liz Mikel (left), is actually cast in Give It Up! But whenever the Divine Miss M happens to be on stage, she pretty much tucks this show in her ample, gilded bra and carries it away with her. Here’s hoping that if Give It Up! does have a New York afterlife, Mikel goes with it.
Second, during Hamburger’s shows, one ‘s mind occasionally wandered into speculations about which area actor could have excelled in this or that role — because the New York immigrants weren’t justifying their employment.
Several of them certainly justify it here. There are some crackerjack young singer-dancers, albeit in that currently popular, TV powerhouse mold: Everyone has to knock everything out of the park (to change sports metaphors). Patti Murin, who plays Lysistrata, is a Kristin Chenoweth-Jane Krakowski type, the tiny blonde with the big, booming voice, while Curtis Holbrook plays a zealous, activist-student who raises Lysistrata’s consciousness a tad — and gets to show off some stellar leaping, gymnastic dance moves.
As for the show itself, I came to it thinking that the removal of an unpopular war as the play’s prime cause and the reduction of its sexual politics to collegiate hijinks would trivialize it, empty it of all meaning — and be a wasted opportunity, to boot, considering the currency of both political issues. But my attitude that “This is a regrettable travesty” got defused by the exuberance of Give It Up! and especially by its knowing, self-mocking humor.
To be sure, it remains utterly lightweight. In his Think TV interview, bookwriter Douglas Carter Beane joked that he’s repeatedly worked elements from classic Greek theater into his musicals to give them “any legitimacy and depth” at all. There’s some truth there. Much like his earlier show Xanadu (touring to Dallas in April), Give It Up! is mostly and determinedly (very) silly fun — not exactly a surprise, given the history of Broadway musicals. Take away the show’s classic underpinnings and its very current sexual/racial/political attitudes, and Give It Up! recalls The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in its general tone of coy naughtiness and its gang of spirited female characters.
Give It Up! certainly lacks Aristophanes’ attack, but it’s not entirely mindless. Beane traffics in comic stereotypes — the dumb blonde, the angry slam poet, the fiery Chicana, the politically correct lefty — but he toys with them, too, inverting them. It’s the dumb blonde, after all, who decides to upend the apple cart and her own privileged, popular life by trying to force the basketball team to play up to its potential.
More typically, Beane twits our expectations with quick little zingers. These kinds of topical one-liners (Tiger Woods? governor’s wives?) are an ancient tradition, too — a Broadway tradition. The puncturing often comes from Liz Mikel’s sardonic madame, the show’s comic centerpiece (her name, Hetairai, means concubine or courtesan). The role suits Mikel and her singing and comic talents so well, it’s practically a glittery, custom-made, form-fitting, Spandex catsuit, the show’s unforgettable sight gag. At different times, both the young women and the young men of Athens University seek Hetairai’s hard-won advice about sexual warfare. (When the cheerleaders show up at the Eros Motor Lodge, Hetairai exclaims, “Damn. Two-for-one lesbian night — again.” )
Just when one is feeling awkward about this example of the black-woman-as-prostitute and the black-woman-as-font-of-Oprah-ish-wisdom, Mikel deadpans, “Oh, I just love solving me some white people’s problems.” This same basic comic technique gets applied to the well-spoken black player, the arrogant jock who, it turns out, can quote Walt Whitman and Emily Dickens — and so on.
The show’s politics of the can’t-we-all-just-get-along variety are personified by the now-standard, perfectly balanced racial diversity of both the team and the cheerleading squad. This well-intentioned but rather bland enlightenment leads to the occasional improbability. Two players eventually come out of the closet — with nary a squawk or snicker from anyone about sharing showers. That would be an unusual college team. And an unusual collegiate fan base.
None of this, I suspect, will much matter to the show’s Broadway prospects. What may well matter is the fact that noisy, musical exuberance and good-lo0king young people delivering funny, ribald jokes will only take a show so far. Give It Up! starts to wear on theatergoers towards the end of its three-hour-length.
For their part, Lewis Flinn’s musical numbers provide a very contemporary, very kinetic mix of pop, hip-hop, rock and dance floor music — very hookish, too. Big beats. But Flinn repeatedly relies on simple, chanted choruses (“You go, girl, you go, girl” and “Right now, right now”) — which makes sense given the cheerleaders here and given hip-hop’s percussive nature. They also lend Give It Up! some of the youthful, fist-in-the-air urgency of all those bone-dumb Bring It On/Fired Up movies about drill team competitions.
But after two hours, you start feeling hammered — this pep rally has gone on too long, and the attempts at change-of-pace balladry aren’t enough. This level of energy and sound can tire an audience. Or maybe I’m just old.
I suspect that a show overselling itself like this is rarely a sin on Broadway. But a show wearing out its welcome is. The plot premise of Give It Up! – horny kids quarreling about whether to win the Big Game — is pretty simple to start with, and it doesn’t advance much once the conflict is established. (There’s also a logical flaw here: My fellow critics can’t imagine that any college athletes would be perfectly happy with losing. It may be very un-Texan, but I can imagine it. What doesn’t make sense is how someone like team leader Mick Jackson (played with conviction by Andrew Rannells) could settle for losing — yet still swagger around like a top-dog stud with his female fans.)
So, the Final Score: Give It Up! was more fun than I thought it would be, thanks to Beane’s wit and the production’s energy. It also provides Liz Mikel the kind of rousing, hilarious showcase she’s long deserved. I’d see it again just for her.
But two days later, I’ve had to struggle to remember large parts of it. It didn’t really mean much, even as a piece of glittery musical comedy. So I’m prompted to ask a version of the question I’ve posed before: Is fun enough?