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|A CurtainUp Review
The Wild Party
Much has been made over the competition between two musicals based on Joseph Moncure March's poem The Wild Party. If you saw the book, given new life via Art Spiegelman's haunting woodcut illustrations, it's not that hard to see why it set the musical pulse of both Andrew Lippa and John La Chiusa going.
The LaChiusa version, directed by the Papp Public Theatre's George C. Wolff was supposed to have been staged last year but as fate would have it the best laid plans of LaChiusa and Wolff misfired so that here we have a season with not one but two Wild Parties. While MTC hasn't been all that lucky with its musicals, it looked as if the show could pack its bags and head for the Great White Way -- heating up the stakes and building anticipation for an "and the winner is The Wild Party" announcement at the Tony ceremony met with shouts of "which one?"
But the press and the public don't always see eye to eye and while Wild Party #1 tickets sold like the perennial hot cakes and the party was given an extra week's run at MTC's Stage 1, the idea of continuing the party on Broadway has been laid to rest. That also means, this musicalized version of the poem won't be a contender at the Tony Awards. But there's the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and various other award giving entities to be heard from -- and also CurtainUp since we didn't make it to the party in time to be among those who gave their thumbs-up/thumbs-down when the party officially opened its door to the press.
To begin this somewhat overdue appraisal, I think even if all the word-of-mouth praise had turned rumors of a Broadway move into fact, those who saw and will see The Wild Party at MTC's Stage One saw it in its best possible setting. Director Gabriel Barre and his creative team have used the theater's stage to the best possible effect. Sight lines are excellent whether you're in the first or the last row. The stage is big enough to allow for a big party with lots of movement but without ever losing its sense of intimacy.
Having read the book -- in fact I brought it along with me to reread during intermission and on my way home -- I'll have to say that I would have wished Andrew Lippa had trusted Joseph Moncure March's rhymed slice of decadence more. Instead he's turned it into a conventional if dark romantic triangle. This does make for an interesting Pagliacci-like Burrs (vaudeville dancer Queenie's often abusive clown lover and co-host of the party they throw to cheer themselves up after an ugly fight). On the other hand it doesn't do much to make Queenie and the mysterious Black more than quick sketch characters.
I also think that the initial reviews would have been less harsh if Mr. Lippa had worked with a lyricist and book writer. He's definitely a composer who has no quarrel with melody and the songs he's written are admirable in their variety. There are several show-stoppers and a number of other songs that make you want to own the CD said to be in the offing. Some of the lyrics are quite good and in the case of "An Old Fashioned Love Story" inspired (“See that girl on the bed?/How she wants me./She's a bee I would free from the hive. . .” ). Delivered by the Lesbian Madelaine True ( a genuine star turn by Alix Korey) this campy and comic tune is sure to have a big life after the party.
The Wild Party may not be the perfect musical we've all been looking for but it's great fun to watch and puts enough talent on display to have warranted a longer run than it will have. The performers playing the foursome at the center of the plot deserve their star billing -- Julia Murney as the wide-eyed Queeniee, Brian d'Arcy James as the cruel and conflicted Burrs, Taye Digg as the mysterious and smitten-with-Quenie Black and Idina Menzel as the anything-for-kicks Kate who brings Black to the party. (Translating Kate's anything goes brashness into having her actually squat on the toilet accompanied by realistic sound effects is a gratuitous anything for an audience gasp touch!).
The invited revelers who make up the ensemble, as in the book, bring the formerly gloomy apartment alive with their delirious bursts of sexual tension and nervous exuberance that work well with Mark Dendy's creative and energetic choreography. Like the interludes in some ballets and operas, we have solo, duet and group numbers which, while doing nothing to further the plot as in a traditional musical, are nevertheless great fun. In addition to Alix Korey's already mentioned Lesbian ditty, there's the delicious novelty song, "Two of a Kind" which cleverly casts a very tall Raymond Jaramillo McLeod as Eddie the prize-fighter and the super petite Jennifer Cody as his girl friend Mae. Lawrence Keigwin as the bi-sexual, tongueless chorus, boy Jackie brings magic to one of Mr. Dendy's most inspired routines, "Jackie's Last Dance."
The two who come closest to literally springing to life from the Spiegelman illustration (page 30) are Charles Dillon and Kevin Cahoon as the brothers Oscar and Phil d'Armano. The androgynous pair leads the chorus in a catchy and, like all else, highly energetic "A Wild, Wild Party."
The creative team is better than excellent. Martin Pakledinaz has dressed everyone in colorful jazz age costumes though there are a few too derivative touches -- especially the neckties without shirts in the opening party number which make you expect the MC from Cabaret to show up any minute. Had this show moved to Broadway David Gallo's set would surely have been a top Tony contender. Its sparsely furnished central platform splits apart and comes together, a metaphoric reflection of how these frantic hedonists desperately come together, only to be pulled back into their feelings of isolation. Gallo has smartly borrowed from Spiegelman's illustrations of threateningly inward tilted apartment houses. He has turned these into facades that wrap around the outside perimeters of the stage, with the orchestra glimpsed through some of the windows. Lighting designer Kenneth Posner further enhances the stunning design.
Will people who see this Wild Party go to see the Broadway version? Avid musical theater fans probably will. The four people who sat down next to me, and asked "what happened to Mandy Patinkin?" are a different breed. They had heard about a musical with this title starring Mandy Patinkin and had no idea that there were two shows by the same name. They were steaming when the lights dimmed but at the intermission one of the women turned to me and said "I like it, it's just not what I thought I was going to see." When I suggested that maybe she would find it interesting to now go to see the other one, her husband chimed in with an emphatic "not at these prices!" Maybe if The Wild Party at the Virginia proves to be wildly successful, he'll unzip his wallet. I should add, that he too enjoyed the show.
Wild Party -- The Book