Cherry Jones (center), with (l-r): Amber Allison,Cheyney Rives, Karen MacDonald, Stephanie Roth-Haberle, Hannah Bos, and Paula Plum in Lysistrata

(Photo:  Mark Garvin)
Cherry Jones (center), with (l-r): Amber Allison,
Cheyney Rives, Karen MacDonald, Stephanie Roth-Haberle,
Hannah Bos, and Paula Plum in Lysistrata
(Photo: Mark Garvin)
It may rank as one of the most disappointing events in Philadelphia theater history. Lysistrata, a new musical adaptation of Aristophanes' anti-war satire, arrives at the Prince Music Theater amidst a storm of controversy. A co-production of the Prince and Boston's much-admired American Repertory Theatre, the production garnered considerable national attention when A.R.T. artistic director Robert Brustein rejected Larry Gelbart's adaptation as being "crassly commercial" and star Cherry Jones, along with director Andrei Serban, derided it as "vulgar" and "bawdy." As a result, Brustein chose to pen the book of the musical himself; given the endless parade of sexual puns and innuendos that he has come up with, we can only assume that Gelbart's effort must have been downright pornographic.

Neither funny nor clever, Brustein's book is only the first in a long list of troubles that plague this ill-advised offering, with problems ranging from poorly designed and constructed costumes to a pop score by composer Galt MacDermot and lyricist Matty Selman that evokes MacDermot's Hair yet, unlike its predecessor, is woefully short on substance.

Aristophanes' plot is vintage Old Comedy, not surprising in that the only surviving scripts of that ancient style belong to this particular Greek playwright. In a somewhat ludicrous attempt to end the 20-year conflict between Sparta and Athens, a group of Greek women hatch a plan to withhold sex from their soldier-husbands until peace is declared. Led by the heroic (and, of course, single) Lysistrata, these women hole up in the Acropolis where, much to Lysistrata's chagrin, they spend a great deal of time dreaming of male genitalia as opposed to focusing on the peace effort. Instead of attempting to bring this ancient world to life, Brustein and Serban give the production a decidedly 1960s tone, a concept that allows for all manner of sexual freedoms and pacifist rhetoric. But while this idea may be good in theory, the execution is so poor that almost nothing in the misguided production comes to fruition.

What makes this Lysistrata all the more depressing is the work of the principal artists, each a theatrical legend. It is rare, indeed, to see such a monumental waste of talent in a single show. Neither Brustein's book nor Serban's staging is even remotely clever; and, as for the work of Jones in the title role, to say she has been miscast is a colossal understatement. Easily one of the stage's finest dramatic actresses, she appears ill-suited to the musical/comedy genre (her singing is uninspired, to say the least) and here lacks the sincerity necessary to fully draw us into this world of balloon phalluses and soft-shoe choruses.

Remember, it was the Prince that managed to transform Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins from a hodgepodge of poorly written hoedowns into one of the most magnificent musical productions of the decade. If the company wasn't able to save Lysistrata from turning into the catastrophe that it is, it's a safe bet that no one could have done so.