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Bridget Beirne and Jose Delgado in The Wild Party
(Photo: Eric Levenson)
SpeakEasy Stage Company, best known for presenting the Boston premieres of new musicals, is currently offering the first production of Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party since the show closed on Broadway in June 2000. Based on the Joseph Moncure March poem that chronicles one long, hot night in Manhattan in the 1920s during which a soirée gets way out of hand, The Wild Party was not a success in New York but proves in its present production that it could have a good life in regional theater.

This is an uncompromising tale of the excesses of the Jazz Age, with drunkenness, debauchery, and murder all playing their part as a raucous bash unfolds and finally comes undone onstage. The party in question is held by the showgirl Queenie and her lover Burrs, a blackface clown. Other showbiz types--producers, strippers, singers, has-beens, and never-will-be's--show up to join the fun. When Queenie's friend Kate arrives with a gigolo named Black in tow, an attraction between Queenie and Black ignites and jealousies flare.

The Broadway Wild Party played in a large proscenium theater, but SpeakEasy gives the musical a much more intimate feel on its smaller thrust stage. There are positives and negatives to this new setting, but the upshot is that it alleviates some of the complaints that people had about the original production: Since the action is almost literally in-your-face, the show's energy is more potent and the intricacies of Queenie and Burrs' complex, highly dysfunctional relationship come more clearly into focus here.

The downside is that the fluidity of the story is staunched somewhat by the complications of moving so many characters around on such a small playing area. Director Andrew Volkoff frequently has key scenes taking place so far downstage that it's unlikely that a good share of the audience sitting on the sides can follow them, and there are instances when secondary characters seem to be pulling focus from the principals. During the latter part of the show, in particular, transitions between a series of short scenes appear awkward. Volkoff does excellent work with the big ensemble numbers, though; highly effective are the presentational numbers when the party is first getting underway and, later, when the revelry begins to degenerate into fights and tears ("Gin"/"Wild").

This production is blessed with a fine cast, headed by Bridget Beirne as Queenie and Christopher Chew as Burrs. Both are excellent and are supported by wonderful performers, notably Kent French as the bisexual, drug-abusing Jackie and Maureen Keillor as the aging legend Delores Montoya. Since LaChiusa's jazz-heavy score is one of the finest created for a musical in several years, it's essential to note that SpeakEasy's orchestra, under the direction of Paul S. Katz, renders it perfectly.

Maureen Keillor and Christopher Chew in The Wild Party
(Photo: Eric Levenson)
Like the March poem, the musical seeks to capture a significant moment in time; but LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, who collaborated on the show's book, deepen this Party by exploring racism, violence, sexuality, and the ways in which people hide behind pleasing façades and try to forget the troubles that plague them. Queenie has long dealt with Burrs' abuse and her own unhappiness by playing the party girl, but this eventful night wakes her up to the fact that the party isn't going to last forever; when morning comes, she is ready to start her life anew. The greatest disappointment of the SpeakEasy production is that it mutes this central message due largely to an ineffective alteration of the show's final moments that de-emphasizes Queenie's epiphany.
Such problems notwithstanding, The Wild Party holds up well outside its city of origin. SpeakEasy has once again taken on a challenging musical and shown us why it is a relevant and exciting drama.

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