The Wild Party
Also see Sarah's review of Tartuffe
Once the party gets going, the artistic tone of this jazzy operetta strobes with unfailing elegance, between a nightmarish decadence on the one side (with actors tinged with deathly clown-white and lamp-black around the eyes) and, on the other side, the heights of a giddiness, fueled by liquor and love and drugs. In the frenzy of the party, the dramatic oscillation never flags, as the highs get higher, and the lows, well ...
Before that frenzy, though, the first twenty minutes or so seem a little stilted and declamatory, crashing against the artfully ghastly glow of the footlights with a kind of bluesy Brechtianism. But we don't have to wait too long for the rocket power of great song and dance to kick-in, because somewhere around the musical number "Raise the Roof," featuring the splendid Margeau Baue Steinau and a large cast of 1920s-style dancers (in great costumes, hair and make-up), the show simply explodes. The wild and carefree dances are choreographed by Robin Michelle Berger, and carried out with razor-sharp precision by the cast. And, once the party gets going, we couldn't look back, even if we wanted to.
Ms. Steinau plays Queenie, a jazz-age vaudeville performer in 1928, whose tumultuous relationship with a bitter, baggy-pants comic has lost its spark. The outstanding Jeffrey Pruett plays the clown, Burrs, with a dark grin that becomes more woeful as the evening wears on. The talent pool is surprisingly deep, with one remarkable solo number after another by various party guests. Deborah Sharn's man-eating Kate may provide the most dazzling of these specialty moments with the sultry "Look at Me Now." And as the cringe-inducing "lavender boys," Joel Hackbarth and Mike Dowdy raise the story to one of biblical proportions with the great duet, "A Wild, Wild Party."
Nikki Glen plays a red hot mama, and Zachary Allen Farmer, completely transformed from recent roles, is thick-headed boxer with Emily Berry as his adorable, sequined moll. Keith Parker is refreshingly different from the rest of the partiers, as the new man in Queenie's life. Aaron VanderYacht turns in an unexpectedly wistfully thoughtful jazz ballet, too.
Lippa's score (he also wrote the book) is demanding and unpredictable, and the characters seem surprisingly life-like and spontaneous. Both challenges from the composer give the cast plenty to work with, and they could easily have been derailed at each turn. But, thanks to their combined expertise and with the help of director Miller, they turn in a solid-gold hit. It's almost like the American answer to Cabaret, leading us up to the edge of the Great Depression. But, like America itself, it keeps its brave face on, dancing right to the bitter end. Don't miss this excellent show.
Through May 15, 2010, at the Washington University South Campus, in the old CBC High School building, just east of the Esquire movie theater, at 6501 Clayton Rd., east of Big Bend Blvd. Parking is adjacent to the building, on the west side. There's a $5 discount for Thursday night performances. For more information, visit them online at www.newlinetheatre.com or call (314) 773-6526.