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A CurtainUp Review
The Wild Party
By Elyse Sommer
Only the fun part of the promise goes unfulfilled. Host, hostess and invited guest at this party are all lost souls, their go-go-go dancing and singing more frantic than genuinely joyous. They're all variations of the show's poster and Playbill cover image of a party-going rouged face with eyes and mouth teetering between a grin and a scream. Burrs is the most clearly unhappy. His "blacking up" style of vaudeville is as close to collapse as his relationship with his vaudeville dancer girl friend, Queenie. He is the maniacal presence who never quite lets us forget that this 1929 party like the decade will come to a sobering end over Queenie's attraction to a stranger at the party.
As that menacing and moody presence, Mandy Patinkin is perfectly cast (and this from one who is not one of Mr. Patinkin's devotees). As the blonde dancer he loves with abusive possessiveness, Toni Collette evokes images of Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe and proves herself as a vivacious actress and topnotch singer.
By creating an actual vaudeville as an overture to the party Burrs and Queenie throw as a pick-me-up for their troublesome relationship, George C. Wolfe, clever showman that he is, has managed to be true to the March poem and also made his orgy a symbol for the end of the good times for vaudeville. Instead of merely being told that Queenie is a blonde who danced twice a day in vaudeville, we see Queenie doing her act which includes a naughty flash of bare breasts.
The party that follows is at times too frenetic, but then again, we are witness to an event that turns into an orgy and a tragedy. Robin Wagner's turntable set of the apartment is somewhat overwhelmed by the Victorian ballroom space in which it is set. The shortcomings of the set are amply offset by Jules Fischer and Peggy Eisenhauer's brilliant lighting and Tony-Leslie James' bright costumes. Overall, it adds up to a polished theatrical entertainment, with a distinctive edginess. Those who did not relate to composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa's operatic score for Marie Christine can relax. He here proves himself very much a man who can cater to more easy listening sensibilities, with a diverse score that pulses with energetic melodies as well as assorted ballads that will probably sound even better on repeat listening. (A May CD has been announced). The music is extremely well served by Bruce Coughlin's orchestrations.
The perfect Beauty and the Beast leads, Collette and Patinkin -- one a more than promising Broadway newcomer by way of the movies, the other a much loved stage veteran -- have plenty of strong allies.
Heading the list is the star featured attraction Eartha Kitt, in the made-to-order part of Dolores, a show biz old-timer. She's still got plenty of purring, glittering sizzle and director Wolfe gives her a chance to use it whenever the party needs some show-stopping oomph and wry wit and wisdom. In "When It Ends" she sums up the party and all it signifies with. . .
Beauty won't matter and brains won't matter
I can tell you that no party lasts forever
I been there and there and there and seen enough
And you better hope to Jesus or Mohammed
That you got the right stuff
When it ends.
Also worthy of star billing is Marc Kudisch as the outrageous and "ambisextrous" (a Joseph Moncure March coinage) Jackie, and Tonya Pinkins as Queenie's best friend and rival Kate. Some of the most memorable guests come in pairs:
Jane Summerhays is a dynamic Miss Madelaine True. Her lesbian sidekick, Sally Murphy, hilariously rouses herself from her zonked out silence long enough to belt out a terrific "After Midnight Dies." (This is also the title of the middle section as announced on the easel at the side of the stage).
Nathan Lee Graham and Michael McElroy are the talented brothers D'Armano from Harlem, whose incestuous devotion is a challenge for the predatory Jackie.
Adam Grupper and Stuart Zagnit, like Lee Wilkof and Michael Mulheren in Kiss Me Kate, add much comic relief as the ambitious producers Gold and Goldberg. Their post midnight lament, "The Movin' Uptown Blues", is an amusing take on their being as lost as the other revelers.
Unfortunately, there's one major miscast in this lineup of exemplary performers. Yancey Arias falls a mile short of the magnetism required of the mysterious Black whose arrival sets off the fuse waiting to explode in Burrs. At first glance you can see why Mr. Wolfe selected him to play the Kate's gigolo. As the black-face acts of the Eddie Cantors, Al Jolsons and Burrs were becoming past history, there was another kind of "blacking up" exemplified by Valentino and even the perennially tanned Cary Grant. Arias' Latin good looks would seem apt for the man winning Queenie's affection from Burrs with his painted black face. However, Arias simply doesn't rise to the opportunity, and even the beautiful Queenie and Black "People Like Us" duet is carried mostly by Toni Collette. This brings us to the inevitable comparisons between this and the MTC musical based on the same source and with the same title.
If you count the rhymed mini-novel by Joseph Moncure March that inspired it all, this is my third review of The Wild Party. First came the book, a 1994 reissue of the 1928 poem given a stunning new life via Art Spiegelman's evocative black and white drawings. As the original was said to have made William Burroughs want to become a writer in 1938, so the book with Spiegelman's illustrations, convinced two young musical theater composers that they could bring March's words and Spiegelman's images to exciting musical life. Cockeyed optimist that I am, I hoped that perhaps two musical Wild Parties wouldn't cancel each other but be unique enough to give fans starved for interesting new book musicals the miracle of twin hits. That scenario was not to be since the MTC version never made its hoped for transfer to Broadway. In the case of the current show which, by starting life in a larger Broadway house has a better chance at a long run, several what ifs inevitably come to mind:
What if Taye Diggs, or at least some less charisma challenged actor could have been cast as Black at the Virginia? What if the current production could have borrowed Andrew Lippa's "An Old Fashioned Love Story" for Madeline True and Mark Dendy's terrific "Jackie's Last Dance?"
All the what ifs aside, what both parties left us with was a sense that the modern musical still has plenty of life left in it. Until that "perfect 10" comes along, this second The Wild Party will do very nicely.
The Wild Party (MTC)
The Wild Party -- Review of the book.
Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s the book by Ann Douglas which informed much of George C. Wolfe's concept for the Broadway musical