One of the most common debates among theater aficionados concerns which is the better of the two musical adaptations of the Joseph Moncure March poem "The Wild Party." In the spring of 2000, New York theatergoers had the opportunity to see two brand new musicals of the same name and story, one by Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine) and the other by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family, Big Fish). However, in the end, both shows offered much to admire through very different approaches to the source material, but neither turned out to be a commercial success. Thirteen years later, Lippa's The Wild Party tends to be the more often mounted version and is currently receiving a thrilling and well-performed production at Wright State University (WSU) in Dayton, Ohio.
The Wild Party is the story of the volatile relationship of Queenie, a stunningly gorgeous dancer, and Burrs, a vaudeville comic, in the New York Prohibition days of the 1920s. Queenie, fed up by the latest of many brutal physical outbursts from her lover, seeks to find a way to humiliate Burrs publicly, and suggests that the pair host a party. An eccentric parade of guests, including the vivacious Kate with her new beau, the mysterious Black, fills the small apartment. As Queenie, Burrs, Kate and Black stir the high-strung emotions and jealousy within each other, the evening turns from wild debauchery to destruction and murder.
The infectious score by Andrew Lippa has a contemporary feel (as opposed to the more period jazz flavor of the other adaptation) and offers energetic character numbers, impassioned ballads, and comical charm songs. The wonderfully melodic and theatrical tunes are matched by uniformly witty and well-crafted lyrics. Songs such as "Raise The Roof," "Poor Child," "An Old-Fashioned Love Story," "A Wild, Wild Party," "The Life of the Party," "What Is It About Her?," and "Make Me Happy" are not easily forgotten and are excellent examples of Mr. Lippa's talent.
The book is also by Andrew Lippa. He wisely focuses the story on the two main couples, and produces fully realized characters that are realistically flawed and conflicted. The book could use clarification in a few spots, and some of the humorous numbers seem misplaced or too presentational in style. However, Mr. Lippa also infuses an overriding tone that suggests the potential for more violence and conflict that creates an overall effect of sustained dramatic tension matched by very few musicals.
Wright State has had a solid and improving musical theater program for quite a while now and the talent on display for this studio production is evidence of this accomplishment. As Queenie, Paige Dobkins displays depth and subtlety in her acting, bringing the character's sass, manipulative intentions, intensity and vulnerability to life. The role is vocally challenging, and Ms. Dobkins does well with the material, except for some unsteadiness at the very top of the part's range. Her best singing is with "Maybe I Like It This Way." As the brutal Burrs, Mark Beyer shows off amazing vocals and embodies the crazed possessiveness of the violent lover. Kelsey Pohl is appropriately free-spirited, pathetic and desperate as Kate, and impressively wails on the role's jazz/rock riffs. As Black, Law Dunford sings soulfully and is poised, caring and suave.
Supplying praiseworthy performances as the other guests are Emma Jordon (a funny Madelaine True), Tommy DiMassimo (a clueless Eddie), Emsie Hapner (an endearing Mae), Mathys Herbert (an awesomely intense Phil), Kevin Ferguson (a fierce Oscar), and Liz Romey (an appropriately meek and wide-eyed Nadine) among others.
Director Jamie Cordes does well playing to both seating areas in the black box configuration, preserves a dangerous tone throughout, and has his actors maintain consistent and apt characterizations from start to finish. Mr. Cordes' blocking of some of the action behind a scrim, incorporating shadows, is a bit hit and miss, and the ensemble singing is imprecise at times, but his direction is overall very good. The vibrant and period-appropriate choreography by Dionysia Williams is highlighted in "The Juggernaut" and "Let Me Drown," with kudos to Victoria Gilman as Jackie who displays excellent solo dance skills. Ian Benjamin capably leads a generally great sounding five piece band.
The minimalist yet unique set design by Ryan Sess uses chalk art drawings on one wall, the floor, and the aforementioned scrim, along with some well-suited, movable pieces. Kody Lupori's varied and atmospheric lighting uses shadows and dimly lit hung candlelight bulbs effectively.
The Wild Party is a mature, intense, and melodic musical, and Wright State University's production showcases a lot of talented students and fine direction. The musical continues at Wright State University in the Herbst Theatre through November 24, 2013. For tickets and information, visit www.wright.edu or call (937) 775-2500.