Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Wild Party
A/C Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of All Shook Up and West Side Story


Alanna Kalbfleisch
Photo by Ginny Medinilla
Over the years, there have been numerous TV shows and films based on the same source material, but there have been very few stage musicals that musicalize the same story, let alone present their creations at almost the exact same time. In 2000, two musicals, both based on Joseph Moncure March's poem "The Wild Party" and using the same title, premiered in New York City within weeks of each other. The fact that both shows didn't exactly meet with critical success and both also had very short runs is understandable, when there is only a wisp of a plot and the characters are ones you know very little about, so you can't really care much about their predicaments or their outcome. Fortunately, Andrew Lippa's adaptation of The Wild Party features a score that includes some truly gorgeous pieces of music and A/C Theatre Company's production, which appears to be its Arizona debut, stars several gifted actors who deliver some deliciously soaring vocals.

The plot is fairly basic. Set in the 1920s, two vaudeville performers, Queenie and her lover Burrs, have a tumultuous and toxic relationship and, in hopes of reigniting the flame of their once hot but now chilly sexual affair, decide to throw a rowdy party in their apartment. They invite an assortment of friends and one, Kate, brings a man named Black, whom she's just met. Queenie, wanting to make Burrs jealous, puts the moves on Black and, as the alcohol flows, the music plays, and the guest's inhibitions are abandoned, jealousy and rage reach a heightened feature pitch.

Lippa's score is lush and evocative, though not exactly in the musical period of the show. His melodies and hooks are very effective at getting beneath the hardened exterior of the characters, and his lyrics greatly help to reveal the dissolution and restlessness they all feel. However, his book doesn't help to flesh out the characters who are so thinly drawn they are almost transparent. They are also all similar, and the way they are written very rarely offers anything of interest to make them compelling enough to hold your interest. The majority of the supporting cast have little to do beyond participating in some highly effective dance sequences and appearing around the stage as silent observers. We know virtually nothing about them, so we have no vested interest in their stories. Yet, too much time and several solos are given to them, which only pads out an incredibly basic plot with many unnecessary moments. Only the comical solo "An Old-Fashioned Love Story" is additive since it provides a small amount of humor to the darkness and despair.

Director Robert Kolby Harper does a very good job in ensuring the atmosphere of the piece is full of seediness and sordid details while also getting fairly nuanced performances from his cast. However, with not much to go with, as far as depth from the book, they are mainly left with archetypal portrayals of jealousy, rage and regret. The Hardes Theatre has been reconfigured for this show as a thrust stage with the audience seated on both sides and my only quibble with the direction is that the majority of the action takes place facing the larger audience seating area, while it appears most of the people seated on the other side mainly get a view of the backs of the actors throughout.

While I have some serious shortcomings with the book of this show, the same cannot be said of this cast, who are almost all giving exceptional performances. Alanna Kalbfleisch is simply stunning and intoxicating as Queenie. Her forceful presence and vocal prowess expertly show the fire burning deep inside this bored lioness who, while she appears somewhat to enjoy the harsh way Burrs continually treats her, is also clearly looking for something more. Kalbfleisch's vocals soar throughout her many solos and group numbers and help to give depth to what could have easily been a mostly one-note part. Joshua Vern injects Burrs with an abundance of pathos and pain underneath his controlling exterior. Vern also does well to show how Burrs has two sides, though his vile, mean and violent personality is clearly the dominant one over his more sensitive half. Vern's singing voice is also highly effective. His performance of "What Is It About Her?" beautifully expresses Burrs' infatuation with Queenie and how her actions are driving him mad, raising his level of jealousy.

Ayanna Le Andre's fun-loving portrayal easily shows how Kate is fierce, scrappy, and always looking for a good time. Kate may love to party hard, but it's clear from Le Andre's assured performance that she is also a realist who understands what she's up against—both in romance and in life. Her exuberant delivery of "Life of the Party" is a huge highlight. Shawn Hansen is good as the sensitive Black, who insists that Queenie deserves something better and believes he is the man to give it to her. However, of the four lead roles his is the one with the least amount of substance.

In the supporting cast, Sonia Rodriguez Wood is perfect as Madelaine True, a lesbian who is always on the prowl. She gets big laughs from "An Old-Fashioned Love Story." Alan Khoutakoun, Devon Nickel, Anny Jetson, and Joseph Paul Cavazos add some color in smaller roles. Also, Kathryn Bailes, who co-choreographed the exceptional roaring twenties dance sequences with Harper, plays the asexual Jackie. I've seen Bailes in several shows in town yet she is virtually unrecognizable in the past. That's how effective she is in her portrayal.

Steve Hilderbrand's music direction derives some fantastic sounds from the exceptional band and large cast though, at the performance I attended, the sound levels were off, with the band sometimes drowning out the vocals. Tiana Torrilhon's set elements evoke the seedy nature of the prohibition era time period beautifully, as do Kim Richards' opulent costumes.

While The Wild Party has some problematic issues with its plot and characters, who are nowhere near as dangerous, dark, intriguing, or interesting as they could be, A/C Theatre Company's production is infused with passion and flare and a cast who do excellent work in playing these desperate characters. While the plot is minimal and the show a bit long, I still recommend this production just to see the exquisite work and stunning vocals from the leads and to hear the exceptional music from the show's superb eight-piece band.

A/C Theatre Company's The Wild Party, through September 23, 2018, at Phoenix Theatre's Hardes Theatre at 100 E. McDowell in Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased by calling 602-254-2151 or at www.actheatrecompany.org.

Book, Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Direction / Co-Choreographer: Robert Kolby Harper
Co-Choreographer: Kathryn Bailes
Music Director: Steve Hilderbrand
Costume Designer: Kim Richard
Stage Manager: Andrea Small
Set Designer: Tiana Torrilhon
Lighting Designer: Zane Petiford
Prop Designer: Ginny Medinilla
Sound Designer: Len Perez

Cast:
Queenie: Alanna Kalbfleisch
Kate: Ayanna Le Andre
Burrs: Joshua Vern
Black: Shawn Hansen
Madeline Tru: Sonia Rodriguez Wood
Nadine: Jessie Jo Pauley
Phil: Alan Khoutakoun
Oscar: Devon Nickel
Dolores: Alexandra Utpadel
Sam: David Hopkins
Mae: Anny Jetson
Eddie: Joseph Paul Cavazos
Max: Michael Schwenke
Jackie: Kathryn Bailes
Kegs: Kendrick Stallings
Neighbor: Tim Shawver


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