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The Wild Party

The Blank Theatre Company offers a first-rate production of Michael John LaChiusa's gin-soaked, jazz-drenched musical.

Jane Lanier and Valarie Pettiford
in The Wild Party
(Photo © Rick Baumgartner)
In pre-Depression New York, troubles were sometime things, right? What did anyone have to worry about that couldn't be camouflaged with makeup, drowned in drink, or sweated away with a night of feverish hoofing of the Black Bottom? Yes indeed, it was nothing but an endless opportunity to celebrate the excesses of life until the walls came crashing down.

Well, without walls, who cares about the ceiling? That's the only thinking that can explain the Blank Theatre Company's serious attempt to blow off the roof of the Hudson Mainstage Theatre with its production of The Wild Party. The space might be too tiny for this nuclear production of Michael John LaChiusa's gin-soaked, jazz-drenched musical -- but when magnificent material meets terrific talent, why complain?

If the production doesn't live up to the 2000 Broadway original, which was directed by George C. Wolfe and had a cast led by Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin, and Eartha Kitt, it's nonetheless a first-rate effort as directed by Daniel Henning -- overall, the best staging I've seen in the show's post-Broadway life. The Wild Party closed on Broadway without recouping or earning any real recognition for LaChiusa's score or the book that he wrote with Wolfe, but the Blank production proves the show's vast entertainment potential and stark emotional power. Both qualities derive from its source material, the 1928 Joseph Moncure March poem of the same title. It depicts a violently hedonistic booze bash that defies Prohibition and any sensible person's moral code; right and wrong, like sex and love, blur until they're indistinct as the myriad show-business partygoers experiment with everything possible and pay hefty prices for their indiscretions.

All this remains in the musical, but the poem has been amplified by LaChiusa and Wolfe into a plangently theatrical morality tale. It begins in a down-and-dirty burlesque house with a lengthy, stylized sequence introducing us to the chorine Queenie (Valarie Pettiford), her blackface-entertainer husband Burrs (Eric Anderson), and the vexing vaudeville of their life, in which the rage is rough but the loving's even rougher. At a particularly tense moment, she draws a knife on him, but he calms her anger with four simple words ("Gin. Skin. Sin. Fun.") and the promise of "a huge shebang."

Queenie and Burrs invite to their party people who, much as they do, wrap themselves in illusions in order to survive the everyday world; their affectations might be makeup (cosmetic or burnt cork), cocaine, the unwavering belief in one's undying popular appeal, or even dishonesty about one's age. But, when the gin comes out, inhibitions shatter and the truth will out. Queenie discovers in Black (Casey Innis), the mysterious escort of her contentious friend Kate (Jane Lanier), a kindred spirit and potential new lover -- but Burrs isn't willing to let her go, so things heat up quickly.

With music like LaChiusa's, that's not surprising; this score is easily the hottest that Broadway has recently produced. Among the highlights: Queenie makes a sensual entrance in "Welcome to My Party" and later cools off with the gorgeous, self-deprecating "Lowdown-Down"; the D'Armano Brothers (Nathan Lee Graham, recreating his Broadway role, and Daren A. Herbert), two black entertainers whose love for each other goes beyond fraternal, score with the sizzling "Uptown"; Burrs celebrates infidelity's infelicities with the mock-vaudevillian "Wouldn't It Be Nice?"; "People Like Us" is an endearing, roundabout romantic duet for Queenie and Black; and "Wild," sung by the full company as the party descends into drunken revelry, is one of the most explosive musical sequences of the past decade.

The band, billed here as "The Wild Party Jazz Orchestra," is led by David O; though only five pieces, a third of the full complement required to play Bruce Coughlin's original orchestration, the reduction is so superb that you'll miss few of the score's nuances. Aaron Francis's set is low-rent but it does allow the necessary fluidity of movement throughout Queenie and Burrs' apartment. Dana Peterson's costume plot dazzlingly mixes suave, top-flight 1920s sophistication with bargain-basement Bowery-blasts-Beau-Brummell attire.

As for the cast: Pettiford is a beguiling, smoky-voiced Queenie, Anderson is a dynamically manic Burrs (there's more than a pinch of Patinkin in his performance), and their chemistry with each other is palpable. Lanier's a commanding Kate, eminently believable as a breakout star. Innis makes his first entrance into the party as if he owns it, and never relinquishes that control. Sally Kellerman, as a declining diva longing for a career resurgence, can't erase memories of Kitt's showstopping prowess -- who could? -- but she's got all the gravitas and keen comic sense that the role requires.

Most of the other performers in the 15-member cast are well suited to their roles. The unfortunate exceptions include Kirsten Benton Chandler, overly mannered as the innovative stripper Madalaine True, and Tony winner Daisy Eagan, vocally unequal to the ethereal soprano songs sung by Madalaine's near-catatonic girltoy Sally. (Eagan's character work, however, is impeccable.)

There are a few other problems: Steven Young's lighting seemed sloppy at the performance I attended; Lanier's choreography is sometimes energetic but sometimes perfunctory; and though Henning's direction bursts with clever new ideas, the proceedings aren't quite as breathless as they could be. Even so, this is an exquisite achievement for the Blank. Queenie, Burrs, and the others may learn the cost of lies and ignoring the outside world, but this production makes dancing away your cares with them seem like the wildest, most joyous option imaginable.


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