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LaChiusa and Lippa Wild Parties

This year, in a burst of synchronicity rarely seen outside of Hollywood blockbusters, New York hosted two Wild Parties. While multiple musical adaptations are nothing new, as evidenced by the many versions of Phantom and Hunchback circling the globe, The Wild Parties are unique in that they are based on a rather obscure text and are written by two contemporaries, thus giving us a rare opportunity to see how two creative forces interpret the same material.

The poem "The Wild Party" was written in 1928 by then 25 year old Joseph Moncure March. It tells the tale of Queenie, a vaudeville dancer living with a clown named Burrs, who decides to throw a 'wild party.' The invitees include a wide variety of 1920's prohibition folk, one of whom is a hustler named Black, with whom Queenie falls in love.

Given the source and the author, it is highly appropriate that two of musical theater's wunderkinds tried their hand at setting this jazz poem to music. Andrew Lippa, best known for the songs he added to the recent revival of You're a Good Man Charlie Brown and for the musical john and jen, wrote the book, music, and lyrics for the first version to burst on the scene, produced Off-Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club. The Broadway Party had lyrics and music by Michael John LaChiusa, who had a second Broadway show this year with Marie Christine. He also co-wrote the book with director George C. Wolfe.

Both versions have newly released cast albums and, while LaChiusa's Party has already been reviewed here on Talkin' Broadway, I could not resist the rare opportunity to compare the two. Even though both Lippa and LaChiusa are of similar ages and have been considered part of the 'Great Hope of the Great White Way,' I doubt you could find two more diverse manners in which they decided to set The Wild Party.

Michael John LaChiusa has written what is essentially a jazz opera, with a strong Brecht/Weill influence, peppered throughout with pastiche numbers that recall Cole Porter, Noel Coward, the Gershwins and Duke Ellington. While not strictly period in style, it nonetheless maintains a consistent and integrated feel that strongly recalls the jazz/vaudeville era of 1929. As per his usual style, LaChiusa has written few solos, preferring to compose musical conversations in which the singers are constantly joined and interrupted by other characters. Also, as is the case with his other shows, this is not an easy show to listen to. His songs are heavy and intense, and there are few moments of levity or chances to relax at his Party. This is not a passive listening CD and it demands a great deal from the listener. But it is one of those rare CDs that actually improves upon repeated listenings, which reveal more layers and complexities.

Andrew Lippa, on the other hand, has taken a more traditional book-musical stance for his Party, an odd approach when one considers the liner notes written by Clifford Lee Johnson III. In the notes Clifford mentions that Lippa has broken away from the traditional style of the 'well-made' musical (which calls to mind what exactly is a 'well-made' musical, and why on earth would one want to avoid writing one?). Andrew Lippa has written an incredibly infectious score with songs that are fun to listen to and which can exist on their own outside the confines of the show. The biggest flaw of his score, however, is the lack of unity in its style. Period jazz numbers are followed by R&B ballads, which are in turn followed by power ballads that could have come from the pen of Frank Wildhorn. Couple that with far too many instances of non-period (and highly distracting) electric guitar licks, and you get a show that just does not gel musically.

Lippa's Party is set further into the world of traditional Broadway musicals by utilizing voices that are very Broadway in sound. Lippa's Queenie, newcomer Julia Murney, has a great Broadway belt and a machine-gun vibrato that would cause LaChiusa's Queenie, the sultry Toni Collette, to die a thousand hangover induced deaths. Other big Broadway voices in Lippa's recording include Idina Menzel (nominated for a Tony for her portrayal of Maureen in Rent) and Alix Korey, who is absolutely divine as the lesbian Madeline True in one of the funniest numbers on the CD, "An Old-Fashioned Love Story." LaChiusa's Party, on the other hand, is inhabited by character voices that fit the period. Toni Collette, who is absolutely enthralling on the CD and displays not only an incredible voice but also a style that suggests Marlene Dietrich fused with Lesley Ann Warren in Victor/Victoria, has the perfect blend of sensuality and emotional vulnerability. The only 'Broadway' sounding voice on LaChiusa's CD is Brooke Sunny Moriber as the new to New York / 'Broadway Baby' Nadine. It is intriguing to listen to her vocal destruction as she becomes part of the dark underbelly of New York.

The only vocal flaw on the LaChiusa CD, oddly enough, is Mandy Patinkin, who seems to be playing the role he was re-born to play; the Al Jolson-esque clown, Burrs. While stylistically he is probably perfect for the part, he nonetheless is incredibly jarring to listen to. Part of the problem is that, compared to the rest of the cast, he comes across vocally like a trumpet in a string quartet; very loud and overpowering. The majority of the problem, however, is that he suffers from the same flaw as the casting of Jack Nicholson in the film The Shining; while he's perfect for the end of the show, he's playing the end at the beginning, and thus there is no evolution. There is no sexuality coming across in his songs, and thus, you have no idea why Queenie would be attracted to and put up with him. On the other hand, in the Lippa version, Brian d'Arcy James is sheer perfection as Burrs and comes across as a James Dean-ish "Wild Man" who, while dangerous, is very attractive and compelling.

Overall, LaChiusa does a much better job of conveying the feel of the era and that of a degenerate party, one that you would not want to attend but love to watch. Lippa's Party is very upbeat and comes across on CD as a fabulous party you would kill to be invited to. LaChiusa has musicalized a great deal of plot and character development, and thus gives a better feel of the story. Lippa's score is lacking in that department, and one must read the synopsis in order to understand the plot. However, LaChiusa has not written a widely accessible show; indeed, listening to the two shows on CD, I got the impression that they would have been much better served by switching their venues. Lippa's Party, being more traditional in structure and feel, may have been more successful on Broadway, while LaChiusa's more daring score would have benefited by an Off-Broadway production.

So which is the 'must have' Wild Party for your CD collection? The answer, I'm afraid, is both. As a cast album, LaChiusa's Party benefits greatly by multiple listenings, while Lippa's version is highly enjoyable from the get-go. Lippa's version is greatly enhanced by the character development and information contained in LaChiusa's Party, and you will be much more inclined to pop it into your CD player for a fun listening. But LaChiusa has written an incredibly compelling score that was sorely overlooked at the Tony's and is great for a serious listening. Any musical theater buff will enjoy both CDs, and both are worthy additions to any collection.


-- Jonathan Frank


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