Welcome to a Different Party by Matthew Murray

    Anyone who knows me also knows the significant transformative effects that Michael John LaChiusa's version of The Wild Party had on my life. While it wasn't the first Broadway show I saw live, it was the first that truly made me sit up and say, "Yes, that's it." I was well aware when I saw it on June 3, 2000, that it was controversial: A whole lot of people preferred Andrew Lippa's musicalization of the Joseph Moncure March poem, which had premiered earlier that year at Manhattan Theatre Club; and Ben Brantley's review in The New York Times was, shall we say, not kind. Interestingly, though, it had been Brantley's review that compelled me to buy a ticket in advance; I knew enough about how his tastes related to mine to know I'd probably like it quite a bit more than he did.

    That turned out to be an unthinkable understatement. From that astonishing first chord (A-sharp/B-natural/E-flat over D-sharp), I knew that my outlook on musical theatre would never be the same. The superb casting of every role, from the devilish playfulness of Marc Kudisch as the "ambisextrous" gadabout Jackie to the jaw-droppingly precise synchronization of every move of Nathan Lee Graham and Michael McElroy as the piano-noodling Brothers D'Armano to the master class in purring deadpan that was Eartha Kitt (whose two big numbers, "Moving Uptown" and "When It Ends," were for me the definition of contemporary showstoppers). George C. Wolfe's nonstop staging that put Robin Wagner's entire furnished-like-a-third-act-passion-set apartment of vaudeville castouts Queenie and Burrs on the stage of the Virginia Theater. And, of course, LaChiusa's score: So nimble for Jackie's "Breezin' Through Another Day," so liquidy for the D'Armano Brothers, so impassioned for Queenie, Kate, and Black (and, with an extra layer of stylization, for Burrs), and so theatrical throughout (the hellborn celebration "Wild" remains one of the hottest numbers I've ever witnessed on Broadway). For me, the show had it all.

    The Wild Party closed the week after I saw it, and I had to move on to plenty of other major changes in my life. But through the wonderful (if sadly incomplete) cast recording and the magic of memory, the show lived on in my head, teasing me with the possibility of someday seeing it again. That opportunity arose in early 2002, when the Speakeasy Stage Company in Boston did the show. I found myself fretting, though: Did I need to worry that the production wouldn't match up to what I'd seen on Broadway? Or that audiences wouldn't "get" it? Or—worst of all—that the show wasn't really as great as I remembered?

    I went. And my advice to you is to always do the same. Waffle about shows you're indifferent about. But never pass up the chance to see a show you love—you never know what new joys you'll discover.

    As fate would have it, I was less than enamored of the Boston production, which had an incredible orchestra but variable direction and performances and an altered ending. A student production at Princeton a couple of years later unlocked some intriguing new things in the text. That was also true of the Blank Theatre Company's production in Los Angeles in the fall of 2005—this one went back to LaChiusa and Wolfe's initial conception of the show, with a black Queenie (Valarie Pettiford) and a white Kate (Jane Lanier), with impressive results. (Sally Kellerman was also terrific in Kitt's role of the aging stage star Dolores Montoya.) In spring of 2007, there was a student production at Columbia University (featuring Lorraine Serabian as Dolores) that was, shall we say, underwhelming. But if none has matched the Broadway version in terms of overall power, each has contributed something very specific and irreplaceable to my appreciation toward and my continuing education of the value of this fascinating work.

    I learned earlier this week of a student production playing for just a few days in the Shop Theater at NYU's Tisch School for the Performing Arts. As I'd been suffering from a very bad cold for days and had gotten little sleep, I was apprehensive about venturing out on my only free night this week. Did I need to see kids doing this very adult show again? In another black -box theater, though the nature of the show's vaudeville elements very much demands a proscenium space? With, likely, only a piano, thus sacrificing Bruce Coughlin's spine-tingling orchestrations? Could it possibly be worth my time?

    The answer, of course, was yes.

    There were plenty of sacrifices director Rachel Bloom made for her production, beyond the (understandably necessary) elimination of the orchestra. The college students obviously haven't experienced enough life to bring the right sense of brokenness to the characters, and the makeup of the available talent pool precluded having a Queenie and Kate of different races (both were white) and two black D'Armanos (same deal). While many of the singers' voices were fine, none was exceptional. Because of the nature of the space—which hardly seats more than 50, and is probably about half the size of many lounges at most Broadway theaters—there wasn't room for much dancing or elaborate staging. Plus, of course, a lot of the intricacies of the plot, the relationships, and the work's overarching social significance just weren't there—this is a dense, difficult work even for professionals, and with the limited rehearsal time you get in college, all this simply couldn't get in.

    But Bloom and her company made plenty of smart choices that haven't been present in other post-Broadway mountings of the show. Choreographer Kelli Bartlett understood that the Black Bottom was a real dance, and instructed her corps accordingly, ramping up the latent sexuality so often ignored in the early sections of the show. Bloom didn't shy from (or misinterpret) the opening scenes' heavy vaudeville leanings, and had her cast playing the song "Dry" and its surrounding dialogue heavily for laughs—exactly the right choice for something so un-naturalistic. (She's the first director I've seen since Wolfe to make this connection.) Because of the limited stage space, Queenie and Black's climactic tryst needed to take place in full view of the audience, while Burrs was having his final breakdown during "How Many Women in the World?"; as the lovers' (ahem) pace quickened, so did Burrs's disintegration—it was an excellent effect, and a clever for solving a difficult staging dilemma. And once the party wound down, Bloom set her Queenie (Maria Taylor), Burrs (Tommy Alsip), Black (Kevin Wade), and Kate (Whitney Brown) loose amid the rubble for an unusually tense confrontation that powerfully pointed up the tangled relationships at the heart of the story.

    The cast, too, brought some keen insights to their characters. As the doped-up Sally, Hannah Chin wasn't just trying to escape from life with chemicals—at one point, she stood on a stool, vacantly trying to hang herself with the pearls around her neck. Yet she was in tune enough that when Queenie and Black enjoyed their first dance, she justified the character's eerie vocal accompaniment by becoming enraptured with their burgeoning love affair, taking of note of them—or really, of anything—for the first time all evening. As Burrs, the stripper Madelaine True, and Mae, Alsip, Mary Lane Haskell, and Emily Cramer were ideally unusual casting: gawky and not svelte or traditionally "good-looking," exactly what you'd expect from these characters that depend so heavily on masquerades. (Alsip's singing was slightly underpowered for the manic Burrs, but otherwise, all three gave solid, colorful performances.) Jennifer Bissell played the anxious 14-year-old Nadine as a little girl trying way too hard to look like an adult, adding an extra layer to the dangerous relationship she develops with the immature Jackie (a perfectly overeager Cailan Robinson).

    Taylor made her youth a real asset as Queenie, drenching her in enough insecurity that you could understand why she'd marry a hapless blackface clown like Burrs and cake her face in unnecessary makeup. Her voice had a strongly developed midrange that took her through much of Queenie's music with ease (though the lower sections gave her some noticeable trouble), her dancing was adept and characterful, and her acting on target from beginning to end. She progressed intelligently and gradually from surface-level chorine to ruminative lover to tentative individualist, and gave the most moving rendition of the final scene, when Queenie's alone in the aftermath of Burrs and Black's final brawl, that I've yet seen—yes, including on Broadway.

    But that's the beauty of seeing this production, like the others before it: They haven't dimmed my memories of what so transfixed me back in 2000—they've brightened them, they've proven that the show can stand on its own and that there remains much more to be said about it. That's why, assuming the time and the means, I'll be making a trip to the next production of The Wild Party I can find, too. And I'm sure I'll enjoy it every bit as much for what it accomplishes that maybe, just maybe, the brilliant original did not.

    Monday, October 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    11/05/2008: White Noise

    10/27/2008: Welcome to a Different Party

    10/20/2008: School Daze

    10/19/2008: Revival Meeting

    09/01/2008: By the Book

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.