Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Wild Party

‘WILD PARTY,’ a challenge for BW’s Musical Theatre Students

In 2006, the now defunct Kalliope Theatre presented a production of
‘WILD PARTY,’ which is now being staged at Baldwin Wallace College. During that excellent production, about halfway through the second act, an elderly man got up from his seat and exited the theatre, mumbling, “I’ve had enough of this depravity.” The man’s pronouncement was probably music to the cast and director’s collective ears. Yes, he hit on one of the play’s central cores...the debasement of some relationships and the depravity of some parts of society.

Moral...if you are like the offended man, are easily put off by semi-nudity, simulated sex acts and raunchy words, you might want to avoid BW’s Allman Theatre during the show’s run. If, on the other hand, you are interested in seeing passions out of control and investigating moral decadence, ‘THE WILD PARTY’ may be your thing.

Andrew Lippa, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for ‘THE WILD PARTY,’ is one of the new breed of musical theatre creators. He’s in the mold of Jonathan Larson, the conceiver of ‘RENT,’ Jason Robert Brown who developed ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD,’ and Laurence O'Keefe, the creator of ‘BAT BOY.’ They see life and place it on the stage with all its realties, flaws and warts.

‘THE WILD PARTY’ won the Outer Critics Circle Award for best Off-Broadway musical of 2000. It was nominated for 13 Drama Desk Awards including best new musical.

Adapted from a book-length poem by Joseph Moncure March, the story takes place in the Roaring Twenties. It mainly centers on one wild night in the Manhattan apartment shared by Queenie, a dancer, and Burrs, a vaudeville clown. In a relationship marked by abuse, which mirrors the prohibition and gangster-controlled era in which they live, the duo throws a party to “end all parties.”

The event is attended by uninhibited guests including Black, a handsome and smooth operator, and Kate, who has a “thing” for Burrs. Queenie and Burrs set out to make each other jealous. After a long night of no-holds-barred sparing and tantalizing, Burrs' temper erupts and he is killed by Black. Queenie steals out, leaving in her wake chaos and frustration.

The music is a combination of jazz-era sounds, coupled with contemporary tones. Though none of the songs will be remembered for long, the overall effect of the music is excellent.

For a production of this show to be successful, the cast must be sensual, seductive, and filled with sexual angst. The leads must be superb. Burrs has to show his maniacal personality with emotional swings from slapstick comedian (think Dick Vandyke), to sexually stimulating (think Hugh Jackman) and also be psychotically dangerous (think Mickey Rourke). That’s a hard job for any performer, let alone for a college student. Queenie has to be sensual, sexual and manipulating. (Fill in your own actresses here). Again, a nearly impossible task for any actress, let alone a young 20 something, no matter the excellent training received as part of BW’s Musical Theatre program.

The odds are against the BW kids. They try valiantly, but simply can’t overcome their youth and lack of worldly experiences. They feign sexy. They act, not live the experiences. But, that doesn’t mean that director Vickie Bussert should not have picked the show. A great part of a good training program is to try and stretch the students to give them experiences that they normally wouldn’t get. Yes, they would probably do a better job with ‘GREASE” or ‘BYE BYE BIRDIE,’ but that wouldn’t give them the challenge they need to prepare for their desired futures, performances on Broadway stages and other professional venues.

The show has some excellent highlights. In spite of having few real dancers in the cast (ah, for the old BW days of Sue Strewe and Janice Kiteley-Kelly), Martin Céspedes again performed his magic by creating dance numbers that paralleled not only the beat and sounds of the music, but stylized the moves and body angles to mimic the swing, jazz, 20s silhouettes. Show stoppers included: "Let Me Drown," "After Raise the Roof," "A Wild, Wild Party" and "The Juggernaut."

Congrats to Antwaun Holley, who lit up the stage with his hoofing. The band, under the adept conducting of Brian Taylor, was mood perfect. There was a great trumpet solo by Kevin Johnson. Ciara Harper, who grasped the role of Kate, and Jessica Dyer displayed solid vocal abilities.

The chorus does an outstanding job of being present and involved in every scene. They have been well coached by Bussert and Céspedes to not just be on stage, but to be emotionally drawn in and react accordingly.

Charlotte Yetman’s costumes and Jeff Herrmann’s sets are excellent. The show is done with the audience on both sides of a runway stage. This creates an intimate playing area.

The show has two casts. I saw the blonde assemblage. I can’t speak for the effectiveness of the Brunette Cast.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE WILD PARTY’ is definitely not for everyone. For those who are willing to be challenged and view the unscrubbed version of how some lead their lives, and want to see college students do a production which challenges their abilities and sensibilities, and often stumbles in the attempt to create an era and life beyond the student’s comprehension, a trip to Berea may be worth your time.