The Wild Party
Upon seeing the cast list for the Blank Theatre Company's West Coast premiere production of Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's The Wild Party, my guest was surprised that there were so many recognizable names. "How," she wondered, "did the Blank get such Broadway-calibre talent for a production at a 99-seat house?"
After seeing the show, it's easy to see why Valarie Pettiford took the lead role of Queenie. She inhabits the part as though it was written for her. Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, is used to being the center of attention whether onstage or off; and Pettiford's Queenie oozes a sexual charisma. She moves, and even stands, with a sensuality right down to her fingertips, and it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off of her. (Her gorgeous blue dress, courtesy of Costume Designer Dana Peterson, makes her even more eye-catching.)
The Wild Party is about what happens when Queenie and her husband throw a party - a hedonistic bacchanal where (assisted by some illegal gin in this Prohibition era piece), guests have sex with whomever they want - any taboos of gender, orientation, race, or marriage being momentarily forgotten. But The Wild Party continues after the wild party ends, and the party's participants look and feel much different in the unforgiving light of day.
Pettiford is particularly stunning in this latter part of the play; but it is only because Queenie was so cool and confident during the party that any glimpses of vulnerability are so affecting. Although surrounded by a talented ensemble, Pettiford owns this show, and gives a performance not easily forgotten.
Eric Anderson plays Queenie's angry husband Burrs, a role he played earlier this year in Musical Theatre Guild's production of the Andrew Lippa version of The Wild Party. Anderson's thin frame and rubber-legged movements make him an obvious choice for the part of the edgy vaudeville clown, but this version of the show takes Burrs to a darker place, and Anderson rises to the challenge.
Other particularly excellent work is done by Nathan Lee Graham, reprising his Broadway turn as Phil D'Armano, and Daren A. Herbert as his brother Oscar. The pair sing together brilliantly, making their way through the fast-moving "Uptown" with wit and enthusiasm. (They even fake-laugh in perfect synch.) Peter Van Norden and Michael Kostroff, as a pair of Jewish Broadway producers who somehow find themselves in way over their heads, are also solid.
Sally Kellerman plays Dolores, a former vaudeville star who may well represent Queenie's future - she's tough, worldly, and doing her best to charm the producers into putting her on Broadway. Kellerman's gravelly voice isn't always heard over the six-piece jazz orchestra, and the high notes aren't always there for her. With Kellerman's bigger-than-life gestures, Dolores comes off a little more Norma Desmondy than she probably should. Jane Lanier, who is also credited as the show's choreographer, plays Queenie's best friend Kate, who arrives at the party with an agenda of her own. Lanier's Kate is not as dominating in voice or movement as Pettiford's Queenie, and the fact that she doesn't come in with a presence that rivals Queenie's is ultimately detrimental to the plot of the show. Also disappointing is Daisy Eagan, who sheds her Secret Garden image by playing drunk party guest Sally, who spends the bulk of the play passed out in various locations, although she awakens once to bare her breasts and sing one number. Eagan's vocal performance undeniably reflects the troubled character of Sally, but her singing is a touch too screechy to leave a good impression.
The show runs over two hours with no intermission. It is nearly entirely sung-through (the program lists some 37 musical numbers, several of which could probably be cut with no loss to the story). Daniel Henning's direction is generally solid, but some of his choices are problematic. For example, Sally is standing in the bedroom when two other characters have a scene on the bed - yet the rest of the scene plays out as though she simply wasn't there.
The show soars in its impressive ensemble numbers. There is always a concern that multiple performers will not be crisp enough in simultaneous singing to put across complex lyrics, but the cast of The Wild Party has no such problems. Moreover, as the company grows louder and more energetic, it gives the impression that the party itself is an entity, larger than the sum of its parts and virtually unstoppable. And in the relatively small space of the Hudson Mainstage, the audience can't help but feel its inescapable power. While some individual performances are not as stellar as might have been hoped, the overall production is solid and Pettiford's Queenie is not to be missed.
The Blank Theatre Company - Daniel Henning Artistic Director/Producer; Noah Wyle Artistic Producer - presents The Wild Party. Music & Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa; Book by Michael John LaChiusa & George C. Wolfe; Based on the poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh. Musical Direction by David O; Choreography by Jane Lanier; Directed by Daniel Henning. Set Design Aaron Francis; Costume Design Dana Peterson; Lighting Design Steven Young; Wig & Makeup Design Judi Lewin; Production Stage Manager Christina Montaño; Assistant Stage Manager Kevin Pong; Assistant Director Chane't Johnson; Associate Producer Ellen Rosoff. Produced by Eddie Mills; Stacy Reed and Noah Wyle. Publicity Ken Werther Publicity.
The Blank Theatre Company's production of The Wild Party runs through November 20, 2005 at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre in Hollywood. For information and tickets, see www.theblank.com.
Photo by Rick Baumgartner