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The Wild Party

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Sutton Foster and Steven Pasquale
Photo by Joan Marcus

"We were having a wild, wild party," sings the tormented chorine Queenie early on in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, which is playing at City Center through Saturday as part of the Encores! Off-Center series. "We were loving it loud and fast." Well, maybe she was at one point, or maybe that really is only part of a note-deep song she and her dastardly mate, Burrs, are doing in their joint vaudeville act. But Leigh Silverman's production of this 2000 musical doesn't register as loud, fast, or, heaven forefend, "wild" at all. This is a lullaby with a fervent blues streak.

To understand why this is, one must start with the full-length Joseph Moncure March poem on which the musical was based. Published in 1928, it's a gripping read yet today for its unforgiving evocation of the final months of the pre-Depression era. The unchecked extravagance tempered by an impending doom; celebrities and nobodies mixing; and the overlapping impacts of sex, drugs, and alcohol seep off of each page, granting what otherwise might be a fairly standard love tangle between Queenie, Burrs, and two other partygoers, Kate and Black, monumental dimensions that make them representative of a time, a way of life, and a callous indifference for existence that were all about to be upended as if by an earthquake.

With the outstanding aid of orchestrator Michael Gibson (and August Eriksmoen, who provided some additional charts), Lippa crafted a fascinating tapestry for this adaptation that skillfully interweaves the undulating urban strains of the music to approximate in the theater the smoke and humidity in which Queenie, Burrs, and the guests at their bash all lived. And in the interim moments in which these sounds are able to shine, a chill does shimmy down your spine to remind you of where and when you are. This is a music and atmosphere it seems certain March would recognize.

But if Lippa respects the basics of March's plot—violent man loves violent woman, alluring new man comes to take violent woman away, violent man reacts badly, and someone has to pay the ultimate price—everything that made the poem significant beyond its words is missing. No societal darkness can be detected beyond the walls of Queenie and Burrs's apartment; in fact, the outside world makes its presence felt not a whit. New York barely registers as the locale, which is critical for its melting-pot jumble of social strata to click into place. For that matter, the party itself is a curious nonentity, comprising a few show-off roles but giving you no hint that it's populated by real people against whom an emotional war must wage.

That thrusts Queenie, Burrs, Kate, and Black into the spotlight almost constantly, yet they're barely people themselves. There's no explanation of the dynamic of what makes Queenie and Burrs tick, let alone stay together. Kate and Black arrive arm-in-arm, but what connection, if any, exists between them is not dramatized. What draws Black to Queenie, and Kate to Burrs, is no more clear. They partner off, rearrange, then sing about their troubles until a resolution is reached that feels arbitrary because it wraps up stories that Lippa cannot convince us need to be told.

Sutton Foster with members of the cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

Plenty of songs try to urge things along. Queenie has "A Wild, Wild Party" and "Raise the Roof," vaguely about drowning her troubles in booze; Kate has the bitterly ironic "The Life of the Party"; "Let Me Drown" is Burrs's deconstruction of his own despair; and the four assemble in various combinations to chart their developing relationships, such as in the suffocating suggestive "Poor Child" or the raging-yearning Act I finale, "What Is It About Her?" And guests occasionally assume the spotlight for a moment—the lesbian Madelaine True has the comic "An Old-Fashioned Love Story," the meat-headed boxer and his dimwitted wife Mae get the playful "Two of a Kind." But absent any sort of a thematic or emotional anchor, the songs just lie there snoozing—would-be showstoppers in search of a show.

Lippa has done himself no favors by instituting some heavily damaging rewrites that unravel the devices he had that worked. By deleting the opening number, "Queenie Was a Blonde" (which was drawn directly from March), he fails to set forth the unique poetic voice and rhyming language on which much of the rest of the evening depends. He said in an interview that he wanted to get to the party faster, but starting with "A Wild, Wild Party"—now both diegetic and a flashback—instead pushes everything further away, and renders his clever use of lyrical leitmotifs useless. Because we don't know who these people are or how they speak, neither they nor the show becomes anything close to real.

Try as they might, the Off-Center cast cannot combat this. Though Sutton Foster makes a glittering, statuesque Queenie, it's a foundation-deep portrayal too often absent the despair that should define the woman beneath the makeup. Brandon Victor Dixon is too blank as Black, offering no sense who the man specifically is or what he wants. As Kate, Joaquina Kalukango unlocks a fair amount of comedic misery, but nothing else—it's a dizzy, daffy performance at odds with everything around her. Only Steven Pasquale finds an appropriate blend: His Burrs is weighty, brutal, and dynamic, though he doesn't quite let us see how these qualities are natural part of his professional clown. Miriam Shor as Madelaine, Ryan Andes as Eddie, and Talene Monahon as a Mae do their jobs capably, but to no effect. The roles just aren't set up that way.

It's possible that more rehearsal time could help. And the City Center space is too big to foster much tension of the sort this show would benefit from; when The Wild Party premiered, it was downstairs at the more intimate Stage I, which could believably force everyone onto each other and up the stakes a bit. But Silverman could compensate for this more than she does, and choreographer Sonya Tayeh could find ways to expand her dances to fill the space better. (The first entry in this year's series, A New Brain, fit onto the sprawling stage beautifully, and it had an even smaller cast, so it can be done.) Donyale Werle's set, Clint Ramos's costumes, and Mark Barton's lights, on the other hand, are just right.

One final note. The most fascinating part of The Wild Party's history is that 2000 also saw a second musical based on the same subject matter: a darker, more conceptual (and weirder) piece written by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe and produced on Broadway. The two versions had (and have) fierce adherents, and though I fell on the LaChiusa side then (admittedly knowing its competitor only from its recording), it's easy to see why Lippa's version could, in the right circumstances, be an entertaining diversion. Silverman's production, its other problems aside, makes the case for that. But it doesn't make the case for it being cohesive, meaningful theatre in line with the dangerous, portentous, and powerful March's poem that saw the question of how we're affected by the people and situations around us as an essential one to ask, even if you're determined to party it up until the world falls apart.

Encores! Off-Center
The Wild Party
Through July 18
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.
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