Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Also see John's review of A Kiss from Alexander and I Sing

Anthony Fett, Jennifer Jordan Rhoads, Cassandra Liveris and Jess Godwin
In an interview I did for TalkinBroadway a few months ago, Stephen Schwartz told me Chicago was the "best theater town in America." The past few weeks have provided some strong support for his opinion. We've had two world premieres from two of the city's always-reliable resident companies: at the Goodman, Rebecca Gilman's intriguing updating of Ibsen's Dollhouse, directed by Robert Falls; and at Steppenwolf, Bruce Norris' The Pain and the Itch. There's been the opening of a Broadway-scale sit-down production of Schwartz's Wicked as well. As good as these Equity productions are, that's only half the story. The other half is the smaller, "off-Loop" theaters where you never know when you'll find, for the price of a $15.00 or $20.00 ticket, a showcase for talented young performers like I Sing, a musical influenced by Chicago's improv tradition (Band Geeks), or a production by a first-year company that rivals the professionalism and excitement provided by the big guys downtown.

The Bohemian's production of Lippa's The Wild Party, the first of this piece in Chicago, is amazingly accomplished. It's necessary to note that it's non-Equity only to point out that there's no reason to make any excuses on those grounds. With a cast composed largely of recent graduates (and a few current students) of college musical theater programs, Director Stephen Genovese and Choreographer Brenda Didier have created a production that knows, and achieves, exactly what it wants to be and look like throughout. They capture perfectly the mood and feel of a decadent scene in 1920s New York. The fourteen-person cast is onstage and in nearly perpetual motion for the full two hours of playing time, and are always in sync with each other to create a rhythm and physical style that help to establish the milieu and characters. Movement is such an element of the piece that it's hard to know where to credit Genovese and where to credit Ms. Didier. They've certainly collaborated closely to create the production's kinetic look, but Ms. Didier undoubtedly earns kudos for her staging of the ensemble work in the songs "A Wild, Wild Party" and "Let Me Drown," both of which "Raise the Roof" (an impressive number as well).

Lippa's challenging and virtually sung-through score is given a nearly impeccable performance by the cast and a seven-piece band, under the music direction of A Scott Williams. Anthony Fett, a student at the University of Hartford's Hartt School of Theater, is an alternately charming and menacing Burrs, with an amazing level of presence and maturity, particularly in "Let Me Drown." He's probably a little too young to be the perfect Burrs, but his performance nearly makes you forget that. Queenie is played by Jess Godwin, a recent graduate of Chicago's Columbia College, who nails her character's eroticism and manipulative nature. Vocally, the part doesn't fit entirely comfortably in her range ... she's stronger in the upper end where she can belt out a storm. In her lower ranges, she sometimes has difficulty being understood over the band (the acoustics of the venue don't help), but in total she's a highly satisfying Queenie.

Cassandra Liveris, 2004 graduate of Ball State University, provides a strong and comic counterpoint to the doomed lovers as Kate (the role originated Off-Broadway by Idina Menzel) and sells her big number, "The Life of the Party," quite effectively. Ty Perry, whose bio mentions a 10-year career in Chicago theater, is the veteran among the leading players and makes a strong and charismatic Black. At the performance I attended, he was not always entirely in control of his powerful voice, sometimes veering off-key, but he gave the kind of energy that made Queenie's attraction to him believable. Jennifer Jordan Rhodes and Brandon Dahlquist, as the seductive Lesbian Madelaine True and the boxer Eddie, are standouts among the supporting cast, along with Marchello Lee, who impressively does "Jackie's Last Dance."

Cast and production staff alike collaborate effectively to create a detailed picture of the party, putting us squarely in the time and place of the story. Genovese keeps the entire cast onstage most of the time, creating bits of character development among the secondary guests (a seduction here, a three-way there, some gay incest among the d'Armano brothers in between) through pantomime in darkness during primary scenes performed by the leads. Period is established in detail through the costume design of Theresa Lipinski (an MFA student at Illinois State University, who incidentally has worked at Stagedoor Manor, the summer camp that inspired Todd Graff's film Camp). The set design by Genovese and Joel Hoover seamlessly unites the existing brick walls of the venue with realistic flats. Christine Ferriter's lighting design adds much to the mood with red and orange hues, coming magically from god-knows-where in this tiny storefront.

Uncredited in the program is the Chicago Transit Authority, whose rumbling elevated trains running nearby through the Clark Street junction add an element of realistic sound design. In fact, the performance I viewed had a bit more of an environmental nature than perhaps was intended. The tiny Stage Left Theater, certainly no larger than Queenie's apartment, contributed through the failure of its air conditioning on this hot July night. That was entirely appropriate, though, given that the original source material refers to the setting as "broiling hot" and that the cast spends a good amount of their time onstage dressed only in their underwear.

The current issue of American Theatre magazine has an interview with B.D. Wong in which the actor is asked what, to him, is true theater. It's not true theatre, Wong replies, if it "cannot be done without electricity." This production nearly qualifies, literally, by that standard. Without any electric current, we would have missed Ms. Ferriter's lighting design, but she probably would have been resourceful enough to manage with only candles.

This was my first exposure to The Wild Party, either in Lippa's version or the one by Michael John LaChiusa which enjoyed a brief Broadway run at the same time the Lippa piece was produced by Manhattan Theater Club off-Broadway in the Spring of 2000, or for that matter, the long poem by Joseph Moncure March on which both musicals were based. I was taken by Lippa's complex yet accessible score, filled with potential "hits" that could be performed out of context but still primarily serve their dramatic purposes within the piece. It's a Broadway-style score that never feels like it's diverting its attention from the story just to deliver a show tune. Lippa and these performers can share in the credit for making this important, and under appreciated piece succeed dramatically and musically.

So why did "the best theater town in America" have to wait five years to see this (the Circle Theatre in Forest Park did the LaChiusa version in Fall, 2002)? Okay, New York, we'll give you this —you got The Wild Party first. Just don't forget that we saw Spamalot and The Light in the Piazza before you.

The Wild Party runs through August 13, 2005; Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 North Sheffield, Chicago. For tickets ($20.00), call the BoHo box office at: 773-791-2393 or go to and click on "TICKETS"

Photo: Jessica Pinkous

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area

-- John Olson

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