It got off to a slowly paced start, but The Happiest Girl in the World crept up on me. A few scenes into this production by the Medicine Show Theater, I was surprised to suddenly find myself charmed. For one thing, the title song, which is reprised more than once, is so melodic, wistful, and poignant in its context that it is still turning in my head—not surprising, since lyricist E.Y. "Yip" Harburg co-wrote a classic song with those same qualities, "Over the Rainbow." In Happiest Girl, Harburg's lyrics accompany music by the 19th-century composer Jacques Offenbach, a pioneer in the development of operetta. The instrumental score is performed mostly by one piano, so there is an emphasis on choral harmony, and the combination of operetta, show-tune camp and wit, and romantic crooning makes for a pleasant and varied musical evening.
Based on Aristophanes's antiwar play Lysistrata, the musical is receiving a rare revival since its premiere in 1961. Director Barbara Vann has combined two existing drafts—the libretto is by Fred Saidy and Henry Mayers—and added some text from the original Lysistrata as well as some of her own.
At the start of the play, Lysistrata (Sarah Engelke), the wife of the Athenian general Kinesias (Samuel Perwin), is weary of the wars that keep taking her husband away. She is enlisted by the goddess of chastity, Diana (Nique Haggerty), to lead the women of Athens in a "no peace no love" campaign in which they refuse to sleep with their husbands until they forsake war. Meanwhile, the women of Sparta, who are the wives of the opposing warriors, are doing the same.
Trouble ensues (this is a musical comedy) when Diana's Uncle Pluto, ruler of the underworld, balks at the notion of a harmonious world, and when Diana's inexperience with love threatens to thwart the plan—and inspires the comedic number "Never Trust a Virgin." Nique Haggerty as Diana is naïve but well meaning, an adorable nymph with a soprano that particularly brings out the classical quality of Offenbach's music.
Engelke has a lovely voice, too—more in a musical theater style. She's an engaging Lysistrata, radiating grace and resolve. As her husband, Samuel Perwin certainly has a beautiful and strong singing voice and the poise of a soldier, but he doesn't match the intelligent demeanor of his wife—although maybe that's the point. When he tells Lysistrata that her lips are "for a lovelier purpose" than speaking her mind, I had to wonder if he had ever met his wife. Mark J. Dempsey as Pluto is a pleasantly understated and thoughtful incarnation of a roguish devil, as opposed to a mean-spirited one. He's calculating instead of evil.
Where the production has trouble is in its tendency toward disorganization and too many choices. While the cast is quite solid, there was much that was unfocused and unclear. Vann's heavily populated stage, which holds bleachers, a marital bed, Greek columns, and a large cast undergoing multiple costume changes, lends the production a Dionysian chaos that, although fun at times, dilutes the story. When the gods are crowded in a pyramid shape on bleachers, it's a good idea but one that brings the action to the back of the stage for too long.
Then, too, Vann can't resist the temptation to overemphasize parallels that were already obvious. When one character says that the Athenians now have a slingshot that will be the end to all weapons, the line is pointed and hilarious. But when the Athenian women change their costumes to modern-day SWAT T-shirts while on the offensive, it seems to beat the parallel over the head.
But I can't dismiss the crowd and chaos altogether, because they do help to express one of the play's more poignant themes—holding on to peace and happiness when dangerous worldly forces threaten to take them away. As the Greek Marines keep marching in to bring him back to war—and away from his wife—Kinesias laments that he and Lysistrata are the only people on earth who need to be "rescued from the Marines."
Though there is a fair amount of bawdiness to the production, at its heart this is a story about trying to find a peaceful, safe corner of the world, a place to share your life with your loved ones.