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The grateful cast of 'Lysistrata Jones' opens up

Backstage in a tiny room at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway, four theater buffs are geeking out.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Backstage in a tiny room at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway, four theater buffs are geeking out.

"This is Angela Lansbury's dressing room!" one says, referring to the time when the "Murder She Wrote" star was in a revival of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music."

"Yes!" says another, looking around.

"And Bernadette Peters," says a third.

"Bernadette was upstairs, I think," corrects another.

To be backstage is clearly something these four relish. But they're not just passing through: They've moved in.

Patti Murin, Liz Mikel, Josh Segarra and Lindsay Nicole Chambers are starring in "Lysistrata Jones," a musical update of Aristophanes' play "Lysistrata" by Douglas Carter Beane. Half have been on Broadway before, but as understudies. It marks the first time all four are originating a Broadway part.

Murin, a 5-foot-4 actress from upstate New York who is playing the plucky Lysistrata, has claimed the dressing room used by such luminaries as Edie Falco, Gabriel Byrne and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Mikel, a Dallas native making her Broadway debut, is sharing with Chambers the dressing room once occupied by Lansbury, Lauren Bacall, Kristin Scott Thomas, Elaine Stritch and, more recently, Ben Stiller during the recent run of "The House of Blue Leaves."

For Segarra, who nabbed Jennifer Jason Leigh's old dressing room, just being in the Walter Kerr Theatre is special enough. Toward the end of his high school career, he and his dad visited the theater to watch "Take Me Out" and the teenage Segarra was so impressed that he decided to become a stage actor on the spot.

"I was like, 'This is what I want to do. This is it,'" says Segarra, 25, from Longwood, Fla. "For me, this is really surreal to know that I get to perform on this stage, where it comes full circle."

He and his three co-stars have had a strange trip to this point, having taken the show from a 99-seat basement church gymnasium in Greenwich Village to a 950-seat theater in Times Square. The three actresses have been with it even longer, having been with the show since it debuted last year at Dallas Theater Center.

Beane and his real-life partner, composer and lyricist Lewis Flinn, have taken the 2,400-year-old comedy about Athenian women withholding sex until their men stop fighting and plopped it to present day Athens College, where the basketball team hasn't won in decades. Enter transfer student Lysistrata Jones, who dares the squad's fed-up girlfriends to stop "giving it up" until their boyfriends win a game. The musical has real basketballs bounced, passed and shot into hoops.

The show is full of Beane's signature arch humor but also deftly explores the tension between determinism and choice. Chambers, 31, who was an understudy on Broadway for "Hairspray" and "Legally Blonde," says the mix of yuks and sentiment was a key reason she signed up. Campy is not fun if you're just being crass, says the Columbus, Ohio, native who is engaged to Chris Barron, the lead singer of the Spin Doctors. "It's much more fun to be campy when you do have a real heart."

While parts often get recast with big names when shows jump to Broadway, the team behind "Lysistrata Jones" refused, partly because the Transport Group-produced musical needs athletic, young-looking actors. And partly as a matter of loyalty for a group who had sacrificed much.

"When people signed on to do that show in Greenwich Village, it was for less money than unemployment. Literally, if you got jury duty, it would have been a pay hike," says Beane, who nixed any idea of replacing his brood. "I'd go to theater jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200."

The cast has a dozen actors and actresses who director and choreographer Dan Knechtges says are "overflowing with soul." He says his main job was to get out of the way so the audience could see their vibrant personalities.

"We sort of picked not necessarily the best triple threats around. But we picked people who had the most interesting personality, the most unique voice, the most unique look and out of that we tried to them make them do all of those things," says Knechtges.

Murin, 31, a lithe blonde from Hopewell Junction, N.Y., is perfectly cast as a cheerleader, having been one at Syracuse University while studying musical theater. She was an understudy in Beane's "Xanadu" on Broadway and recently played the title role in "Emma" at The Old Globe in San Diego.

She's been with the show since the beginning in Texas and in addition to singing, acting and dancing, has been asked to shoot three baskets on stage during the show, one of which is particularly tricky.

If she misses, she vows to continue trying until she makes it. Her husband, a basketball nut and fellow actor Curtis Holbrook, has advised her not to be scared of failing. "There will be times I know I'll get into slumps," she says. "I guess it is a little bit of added pressure but it's OK. I'm learning to deal with that."

The cast bonded recently during a five-day basketball clinic led by Chris Mullin, the retired NBA All-Star. He taught the actors the fundamentals of the sport and they say he gave them confidence.

For Segarra, who plays a dimwitted baller and Lysistrata's love interest, dribbling comes second nature. A New York University graduate, he made his high school basketball team during his freshman year, but quit after being cast in a school production of "The Sound of Music." Unlike some of his fellow actors, Segarra is comfortable with a ball in his hand.

"That's when I have the most fun. That's when I get to show off because I know people are in the audience going, 'Let's see these theater boys play basketball,'" he says. "And I'll just drop it and start going. And I'll watch people's faces go, 'Oh.' That's my most prideful moment."

Mikel, a veteran of the Dallas theater and music scenes who was best known nationally as Corinna Williams on the TV series "Friday Night Lights," is making her Broadway debut, but says she isn't making a huge deal out of it.

"Having done this professionally for 20 years now, I didn't want to psyche myself up and say, 'Oh, this is Broadway,'" she says. "It's another show. This is what I do. I'm grateful it has this geographical location, but it's what we do."

One clear benefit to being in such a high-energy show is that none of the cast needs to go to the gym any more. Sweat rolls off them even before the finale, a 15-minute intense sequence of dancing and singing and layups.

"We can eat anything that we want!" says Chambers.

"I've never been skinnier in my life," agrees Murin, who is somewhat shocked to find herself snacking on chocolate bars. "You can't really talk to a whole lot of people about it. They're like, 'Oh, that sucks for you, doesn't it?'"