SpeakEasy Stage Company's current offering of The Wild Party (with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa) is the first production of this work since its brief Broadway premiere production in the spring of 2000. George C. Wolfe, who shares book-writer credit with LaChiusa, also directed the original production. Based on the epic poem by Joseph Moncure March, it was one of two Wild Parties produced that season. (The other by composer Andrew Lippa had an equally short off-Broadway run.) March's work, a 1928 underground sensation despite its critical and literary rejection, remained out if circulation and forgotten for decades. A 1994 reprinting with illustrations by Max Spiegelman gave the work new life.
Set in the fading New York vaudeville world of the twenties, the poem depicts the tragic consequences of too much booze, drugs, sexual rivalry and social experimentation. No surprise that more than one composer would be attracted to this story which offers something of a parable for our more recent periods of over indulgence.
The death of vaudeville, the growing sophistication of "downtown" (the white establishment) and the social emergence of "uptown" (Harlem) offer much potential for musical exploration. LaChiusa moves from vaudeville pastiche to the emulation of Cole Porter and Duke Ellington with equal ease, all the while making the sound and feel his own.
They decide to throw a party to make up for a hot summer afternoon of fighting. As the evening's entertainments and entanglements progress, the story careens from the upright piano to the Victrola, the make-shift bar, the bed and even the bathtub, filled with the washed-up legend, Dolores (Maureen Keiller), rather than the requisite gin.
Word gets out and "the old gang" of friends and rivals shows up in force. The first guests through the door are the well-heeled bon vivant Jackie (Kent French) and the stripper Madeline (Lisa Korak) dragging her catatonic friend Sally (Rachel Peters) behind her.
Other fellow performers arrive: a former heavyweight champ (Phillip Woods) now making the circuit with his ex-chorus girl wife (Jackie Duffy) and her little sister Nadine (Bree Greig) in tow; the song and dance team of the brothers D'Armano (James Jackson, Jr. and Brian Robinson) and the aforementioned Dolores who enters with the warning:
Queenie takes Nadine under her tutelage, introducing her to best friend and rival, Kate (Merle Perkins) and Kate's handsome escort Black (Jose Delgado.) Queenie accepts Black's challenge to "mooch" her, setting the stage for the evening's inevitable bad finish.
Into this dangerous mix come my two favorite guests, Gold and Goldberg (Trevor Little and John Porcaro), a pair of would-be Broadway producers invited by Burrs so he'll be included when they make the hoped-for leap from the Bowery to Times Square.
The biggest surprise of the evening was Chew. While I found him to be too soft as George in Sunday in the Park ... at the Lyric Stage earlier this season, he's a dangerous and edgy Burrs in this production. He musically nails both his opening "Al Jolson" vaudeville turn and the unraveling of his state of mind at the end of the evening.
Beirne, however talented, is miscast as Queenie. Reminiscent of a young Patricia Neal, a solid, earthy sort of woman, she's not convincing as someone vulnerable enough about her looks and position to be made a victim by more than one of her so-called friends and lovers, not to mention her own appetite for trouble.
All the singers and the terrific small orchestra sound great because of the intimacy of the space and the expert conducting and musical direction of Paul S. Katz. With the exception of Sally's drugged out passage "After Midnight Dies" which was unintelligible, the intricacies of the piece come across.
Fortunately, LaChiusa's The Wild Party isn't banned in Boston as the original poem was, nor has it been relegated to obscurity thanks to the excellent Decca original cast recording. And based on this fine production, it should have many more reincarnations in the regional theatres and elsewhere and take its rightful place among the few great works of contemporary musical theatre.
The Wild Party is presented by The SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Boston Center for the Arts: BCA Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston through February 23rd. Performance schedule: Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays at 8PM; Saturdays at 5PM and 8:30PM; Sundays at 7PM. Box office phone: 617 426-ARTS (2787).