Monday, May 23, 2016

Blank Canvas’s WILD PARTY, not a musical for everyone

THE WILD PARTY is a musical by Andrew Lippa, based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem of the same name.

THE WILD PARTY is a musical by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe based on the same poem.

Both versions of THE WILD PARTY opened during the 1999-2000 season, one on Broadway (the LaChiusa/Wolfe creation), the other off-Broadway (the Lippa conception).

The versions differ in format, but still contain the same story line of decadence, bathtub gin, uninhibited sexual behavior, and people who engender little reason to be liked.  The LaChiusa/Wolfe version is presented as a series of vaudeville acts.  Each segment is introduced by signs with titles of what each “act” will be performed.  The Lippa version is a more conventional theatrical story with a beginning, middle and end.

The Lippa version is now on stage at Blank Canvas.

The poem was a sensation.  It was considered so lascivious that it was banned in many places when it was published in 1928.  In spite of the shunning the poem was a success.  Ironically, the only success of March’s writing career.

The story centers on Queenie, a well known party giver and purveyor of bathtub gin and drugs, and her relationship with Burrs, a “clown” with a violent streak.  They live a decadent life style that March indicates was the way the “in” Hollywood crowd lived during the swinging 1920s, the era of prohibition, speakeasies, uninhibited sex, orgies, eccentricism, acceptance of various sexual life styles, and wild parties. 

During one of the parties, Mr. Black, a well-dressed, handsome, suave, seemingly wealthy man of impeccable manners appears.  Queenie falls hard for him, incites Burrs into a jealous rage, with a tragic outcome.

Broad characters fill the stage.  Besides Queenie (Trinidad Snider), Burrs (Patrick Ciamacco) and Mr. Black (Nathan Tolliver), there’s Kate (Neely Gevaart), Queenie’s supposed best friend who is having an affair with Burrs, Jackie  (Richie Gagen), an ambisextrous kid who has no gender preference for his sexual partners, Oscar (Justin Woody) and Phil (Kevin Kelly), gay brothers who are also lovers, Madelaine True (Kim Eskut), a lesbian stripper, and Eddie (Zac Hudak), a punch-drunk prizefighter.

According to the writer, the story is “about the masks we wear culturally and the removal of those masks over the course of the party [life].   Unfortunately, the characters illicit no reason to be liked.  They lead unproductive, rudderless lives, with seemingly no redemptive qualities.  They are self-centered to the degree that we really don’t care what happens to them.  There are no “good guys” to root for, no protagonists, only antagonists. 

The strength of the script lies in the jazz, soul and gospel music and the opportunity to incorporate some big dance and show-stopping numbers.   Unfortunately, due to the postage stamp size of the Blank Canvas stage, and the huge size of the cast, choreographer Katie Zarecki’s dance numbers often appear to be chaotic mash-ups.  Maybe sitting some of the cast down, and having fewer participate in the numbers, would have allowed for a better appreciation of the choreography.  Strong dancing was displayed in the show-stopping “Juggernaut” and “A Wild, Wild Party.”

Many of the cast have excellent singing voices.  Neely Gevaart, a Liza Minelli knock-off, does a great version of “Look at Me Now.”  She, along with Nathan Tolliver, Trinidad Snider and Patrick Ciamacco, blend well in “Poor Child.”  Ciamacco does a strong gospel/jazz version of “Let Me Drown.”  Kim Eskut effectively belted “An Old-Fashioned Love Story.” 

Many of the cast, as is often the case in a mainly neophyte group, feigns characterizations.  Acting what they think the person they are portraying would be, rather than being the person.  Actions are often fake, overdone, non-realistic.  To make the script work, the audience must buy into real people, in real ego-centric stress.

Patrick Ciamacco, he of well-tuned singing voice, created a Burr that was appropriately scary.  Nathan Tolliver is a fine vocalist, but in some instances pre-planned gestures and surface-level acting, distracted from his creating a real person out of Mr. Black.  Trinidad Snider was inconsistent in her vocal presentations, though she created a clear characterization as Queenie.

Personal Sidebar:  Hung on one of the walls of Burr’s apartment is a poster advertising one of his performances at “The Berko Theatre.”  Little does the set designer know that he has satisfied one of the few remaining items on my life’s bucket list, “having a theatre named after me.”  Thanks, Patrick! 

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  If watching decadence is your thing, you’ll probably be turned on by THE WILD PARTY.  If you prefer being in the presence of characters who have redeeming values so you can feel empathy, this is not going to be your show.  The cast, though some give surface level performances, generally display good singing voices and put out full effort.

Blank Canvas’s THE WILD PARTY runs though June 4, 2016 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website. Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  For tickets and directions go to