Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
The Wild Party
Queenie and the gang seem to be having only a mediocre time over at The Media Theatre for the Performing Arts where Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party is having its Philadelphia premiere. First seen Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000, director Jesse Cline's production aims for decadent frivolity, but the musical's orgasmic buzz is ultimately brought down by a less-than-perfect cast that doesn't seem to entirely understand the show's nuances.
The Wild Party, based on Joseph Moncure March's 1920s epic poem of the same name, centers on lovers Queenie (Jessica Leigh Brown), a vaudeville starlet, and her manic and overly possessive boyfriend, theater clown Burrs (Stephen Alexander Horst). Tired of being abused and mistreated at the hands of Burrs, Queenie decides to throw a "wild party" at which she is sure that Burrs will embarrass himself in front of all their friends. Before we know it, set designer Thom Bumblauskas's already way-overcrowded and cluttered set, made up of various furniture pieces and exposed I-beams, is packed with partygoers. The revelers, outfitted in Tricia Wenglar's beautiful 1920s designs, are a disparate lot and include Madelaine (Chevy Anz), a mannish lesbian; Eddie (Brian O'Brien), a boxer; and Oscar (Jeremiah Downes) and Phil D'Armano (Tom Dooley), a gay theater couple. Kate (Jennie Eisenhower), a rival of Queenie's, also arrives, dragging along her latest catch, the mysterious Black (Teren Carter). Once the guests start throwing back the drinks and snorting coke, everyone ends up in various states of undress and it's a complete free-for-all where partners switch places and Queenie finds herself attracted to the quiet Black, a marked change from the abusive Burrs.
Sounds like a fun night, what with flappers, drinking, and a lot of sex, right? Unfortunately, this production, despite some smart moves by Cline, is fairly lugubrious. The cast never really seems depraved; rather they come off as "naughty" children, playacting at the business of real decadence. Jessica Leigh Brown has the vocal chops to take on Queenie's luscious songs, but she is not quite convincing as an actress. We never really believe that her Queenie has gone through any sort of transformation by the show's end, even as she watches Burrs die. Horst's Burrs is appropriately frenzied and high strung, but he doesn't come off as dangerous, a key element needed to make the threat he poses real and believable. Carter's Black should be renamed "Bland," so ineffective is he at creating a memorable character. Only Jennie Eisenhower as a simultaneously needy and seductive Kate seems to understand the high stakes in this piece and gets under the skin of her character. Eisenhower carries off her songs not only with élan and conviction, but she also embodies Kate with a vitality and energy missing in the other leads.
The rest of the ensemble (and it's a large and diverse bunch) is hit and miss. While some acting seems decidedly out of a bad high school production, Chevy Anz as the predatory Madelaine scores big in her number "An Old-Fashioned Love Story." Too bad that creator Lippa didn't give her character more to do. Equally winning is Brian O'Brien as the hunky pugilist Eddie. If he wasn't a baritone, it would have been interesting to see him take on the character of Burrs as he masters the right balance between viciousness and light frivolity that the show is ultimately about.
The Wild Party is a difficult musical to pull off, namely because there are so many characters on stage. Such an issue is an inherent component of March's source material and Lippa only partially succeeds at creating a work in which a balance is struck between the four leads and the secondary figures. Despite a few memorable numbers, such as Eddie and Mae's "Two of a Kind" and Queenie's "Out of the Blue," his musical will probably always register as an unmanageable unwieldy claustrophobic work that leaves one feeling like they have a bad hangover.
Cline's staging is initially a little muddy, but by the middle of the first act, Cline has figured out a way to appropriately frame the action of the four leads and make some sense out of Lippa's busy plot. The ensemble in the big production numbers, namely the rousing title number, well choreographed by Richard Amelius (who also plays the dancer Jackie), is sufficiently animated.
Cline and The Media Theatre should be applauded for staging a risky new musical like this. Though the blue-hairs (arguably The Media Theatre's main audience) at the performance I attended were less than pleased by Lippa's wild show, I think their displeasure resulted not only from the show's content matter, but from their insecurities in experiencing a new musical form, one that is almost completely sung through and which relies more on thematic motifs than on full songs. Such is the new American musical and if it doesn't completely succeed, it's still worth the attempt.
The Wild Party runs through March 28. Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with one 15-minute intermission. Media Theatre for the Performing Arts, 104 East State Street, Media, PA. Schedule and Tickets: 610-891-0100 or visit www.mediatheatre.org.