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The Wild Party

Andrew Lippa's 2000 off-Broadway hit returns for an Encores! Off-Center concert.

Brandon Victor Dixon and Sutton Foster star in Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, directed by Leigh Silverman, for Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

It was a time of easy money, loose morals, and bottomless confidence. I'm speaking, of course, of the year 2000. That's when Andrew Lippa premiered The Wild Party, his rollicking jazz-age-inspired musical based on Joseph Moncure March's eponymous 1928 narrative poem. It's not surprising that 2000 saw the emergence of not one but two musical adaptations of The Wild Party (Michael John LaChiusa's played Broadway while Lippa's started off-Broadway in the basement of New York City Center; it has now moved upstairs for Encores! Off-Center). Both 2000 and 1928 represented the twilight of a glorious American era, a kind of national cocaine bender during which everything we did seemed brilliant and the good times looked like they would last forever.

Of course, after any big high follows an equally massive comedown (the Great Depression in the case of 1928; Bush v. Gore, 9/11, and dot-com collapse for 2000). There are ample lessons to be learned in looking back on The Wild Party from the vantage point of the Long Hangover, just maybe not in this muddled staging in which hazy themes cede center stage to knockout individual performances.

The story follows Queenie (Sutton Foster) and Burrs (Steven Pasquale), a showbiz couple surviving a dysfunctional relationship through a cocktail of passion and desperation…and cocktails. To break up their ennui they decide to throw an all-night rager, inviting their most colorful friends like Boxer Eddie (the super-macho Ryan Andes), his dumb girlfriend Mae (a feisty and petite Talene Monahon), and jailbait Nadine (Renée Albulario). Queenie's old frenemy Kate (Joaquina Kalukango) arrives with a handsome stud on her arm named Mr. Black (Brandon Victor Dixon). Suddenly, Queenie sees in Black the opportunity to make her party a whole lot livelier.

You may not catch half of that background information in this updated version. Lippa has sliced and diced his book, rearranging songs and cutting others all together, rendering this production nearly without exposition. Instead of the introductory "Queenie Was a Blonde," the show begins inexplicably with "A Wild, Wild Party," which previously appeared late in the first act. "What a Party" (which once introduced us to the supporting players) has been truncated almost out of existence. Unless you're already familiar with the poem or the musical, you may have a hard time keeping up.

Lippa and director Leigh Silverman treat this concert staging not so much like an encore, but a second chance to fix the show's flaws. While this lack of preciousness about one's work is refreshing, the result is less than satisfactory: A dragged-out second act surprisingly devoid of stakes still mars an otherwise solid show. Thankfully, the main attraction remains largely in tact: unforgettable solo performances executed by a talented cast.

For instance, Miriam Shor leaves us rolling with laughter with her brassy rendition of "An Old-Fashioned Love Story." Dressed like a slutty Ellen DeGeneres (smart costumes by Clint Ramos), Shor plays lesbian horndog Madelaine True with an understated desperation that feels authentic.

Pasquale's portrayal of Burrs is as funny as it is terrifying. He's like Milton Berle playing Al Pacino in Scarface. Dixon is handsome and sophisticated as Black, elevating the second act with a high-flying rendition of "I'll Be Here." Kalukango brings her A-game for "Life of the Party" (arguably the show's most enduring number). Her wobbly physicality contrasts with her powerful voice. She taunts the audience like a bully, high on her own ambition (and cocaine).

Foster's Queenie is more hit-and-miss. She lends to the role her sphinxlike grin and irrepressible charm, making Queenie likable and even relatable without detracting from her erratic lust for danger. Awkwardly, the ghost of that grin lingers through the show's final scene, in which Foster delivers the song "A Happy Ending," which Lippa wrote specifically for this Encores! revival. It's a thoughtful and meandering song, which results in a confused and somewhat sleepy performance from Foster.

In fact, the song feels like a musical false epiphany, the kind you get when you're still drunk and the headache has yet to set in. Queenie never truly reckons with the consequences of this wildest of parties. Rather, she seems to be blocking most of it out with a series of justifications.

Of course, if you just want to hear Lippa's vocally impressive songs delivered by some of the best musical-theater performers in the business, this presentation of The Wild Party will give you that. What it all means when put together is entirely up to you.

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