Nothing succeeds like excess, Oscar Wilde once wrote, and nowhere is that more true than in America. We are the land that invented competitive eating; when the Olympics finally welcomed professional athletes we sent the Dream Team; and we have a world-class opioid epidemic.
So when the twentieth century required an epic poem, it got one by Joseph Moncure March about an adventure in boundary-obliteration called The Wild Party; and when it came time to turn that poem into a musical, we got not one but two, written and staged virtually simultaneously by two significant Broadway talents, John LaChiusa and Andrew Lippa. It is the latter of these two productions which is debuting in DC, and is now ensconced at the Source, in the hands of Constellation Theatre Company.
I say “musical” but it may strike you more like a high mass to low instincts; a soaring choral masterpiece featuring operatic arias and difficult, discordant jazz harmonies. There is hardly a line of spoken dialogue in the whole piece, and no wonder: if, as traditionally thought, a musical is a thing in which character speak their exterior thoughts and sing their interior ones, then The Wild Party is a musical in which the interior is exterior. The characters are all id; desperately (and fueled by cocaine and bathtub gin) hoping to express their secret selves, and so realize their secret desires.
The Wild Party is full of wild characters — Eddie the Pugilist (Calvin Malone) and his much-loved wife, tiny Mae (Emily Zickler); the incestuous d’Amano brothers, Phil (Tiziano D’Affuso) and Oscar (Christian Montgomery), who write music when they aren’t making out; the predatory lesbian Madelaine True (Rachel Barlaam), who has her eyes on every woman but especially Nadine (Patricia “Pep” Targate), underage but already a first-class lush; the bored, cynical Broadway producer Sam, (James Finley), whose sour disposition gets a facelift of major proportions when he hears the d’Amanos’ musical remake of the Old Testament.
Notwithstanding all that color, this is really the story of four people: Queenie (Farrell Parker), an ice non-maiden whose instincts are all at war with each other; her lover Burrs (Jimmy Mavrikes), a fierce-tempered bully; her frenemy Kate (Kari Ginsburg), and the mysterious Mr. Black (Ian Anthony Coleman), the man Kate brings to the party. The Wild Party is an intense character study of the four of them, in interaction with each other and, incidentally, with the other guests.
These four characters reach a level of complexity which is unusual in a musical. Queenie is a woman who cannot help but love a violent man (“She knew,” Queenie sings with a chorus of men, “That she liked her lovers violent/And she likes her lovers vicious./But until she found the one man/Who could answer all her wishes.”) That man is Burrs, a professional vaudeville clown and lady-killer, who has mastered the art of seduction but not of anger management. (“He played/The girlie game,” he sings. “But behind/The scenes…He was mean/And rough.” A female chorus agrees: “He was made/Of vile and violent/Stuff.”)
In Parker’s portrayal, Queenie’s simmering anger is never far from the surface. She smiles often, but it is a hard smile, with malice aforethought. She and Burrs are together for three years, and faithful to each other, but now they’re bored. After a confrontation with Burrs which ends up when she draws a knife on him, she hits upon the idea of the idea of throwing a party in which she’d find an opportunity to humiliate Burrs — perhaps by seducing another man in plain sight.
The Wild Party
closes October 29, 2017
Details and tickets
Burrs is a man of mixed threat and vulnerability. He is almost pathetically in love with Queenie, but his aggression and physicality mask how dangerously close he is to emotional collapse. I have seen Burrs played so fiercely that Queenie seemed in physical danger from almost the first moment of the musical, but Mavrikes and director Allison Arkell Stockman have chosen to emphasize his soft side, even to the point of having him retain some of his clown makeup for the whole show, thus recalling Pagliacci.
Kate ignites the party’s fuse by showing up with Mr. Black in tow before the midway point. She met Black in a club but her real objective is Burrs; Lippa implies, but does not state directly, that she hopes Black will distract Queenie so that she can intercept Queenie’s lover. If that is her goal it works, partly; Black is smitten with Queenie but Burrs will still have nothing to do with Kate.
Black is different than everyone else; in his sturdy workingman’s clothes (Erik Teague’s costumes are outstanding throughout, by the way) he takes things at face value, and is authentic in return. He sees in Queenie an abused woman, rather than the manipulative, conflicted person she really is, and his song of empathy and sympathy — “Poor Child” — is the most beautiful piece of a genuinely gorgeous score. (Brilliantly, Lippa has Queenie, Burrs, and Kate join in, throwing their cynical verses against Black’s heartbroken lyrics). Queenie singles Black out as her instrument in humiliating Burrs, but then commits the cardinal sin of falling in love with him. You do not need a spoiler alert to know that things do not end well.
In talking about the performances, I need to get this out of the way first: Parker gives us an authentic and consistent Queenie, and her voice is beautiful and true, but it is somewhat underpowered. She delivers some lines with great verve, but then is swallowed up by the fine orchestra, thus making it a little more difficult to follow the complex story. This may remedy itself in later shows, when the singer and the musicians get to know each other better, but in the show I saw, it was the only limitation on a production that was otherwise smokin’.
Let’s get specific. Queenie, Burrs, and Kate all hold conflicting thoughts and emotions within themselves, and the actors must show that conflict to us — while singing. They all succeed. I never really knew whether Ginsburg’s Kate, self-proclaimed white trash (“I was born in a ditch in West Virginia,” she sings, “And holy cow/Just take a look at me now.”) is proud of or disgusted with herself; I only knew that she wants Burrs, and would be either in order to get him. That’s for the good and, I think, is Lippa’s intention. Mavrikes has Burrs’ desperate love for Queenie seep out from him like blood from a man with a stab wound in his heart; his bluster is clearly no more than bravado, and in so artfully and subtly establishing his character, Mavrikes makes Burrs sympathetic in spite of his brutal tendencies, and thus makes the ending more tragic and moving.
The Wild Party is a big musical, with lots of characters, but Stockman makes it work on the Source’s tiny stage. Part of it is due to her clever and sensible staging; props roll on and off stage unobtrusively, and not a moment before necessary. But much of this success is due to Ilona Kessell’s fantastic choreography, in which the large cast — every one of them a fine dancer — executes ambitious dance numbers (like “the Juggernaut”) with breathtaking precision. (In particular, Malone, a large man, is a hoot as a hoofer throughout.)
Black, as a man who is neither conflicted nor inauthentic, is, if not the person we wish we were, then at least the person we wish we knew. Coleman is never anything but that, nor should he ever be, and in addition has about a five-octave voice. When he takes it to bass he gives his voice an authoritative rumble, much in the same way that a bass will anchor a band, or a church organ, hitting the bass notes, adds a patina of gravity to religious services.
Because ultimately that’s what The Wild Party is, and is in Constellation’s wonderful production: a religious service for those of us who live in confusion and doubt and error; a mass for the sick at heart; a hymn for the damned.
The Wild Party, based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March; book, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa; directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; musical direction by Walter “Bobby” McCoy; choreographed by Ilona Kessell. Featuring Farrell Parker, Jimmy Mavrikes, Ian Anthony Coleman, Kari Ginsburg, Rachel Barlaam, Calvin Malone, Emily Zickler, Tiziano D’Affuso, Christian Montgomery, Carl Williams, Julia Klavans, Patricia “Pep” Targete and James Finley. Orchestra: McCoy conducting and on keyboards; Benjamin Young on bass; Jim Hofmann on drums; Cyndy Elliot on bass guitar; Dana Gardner and Mila Weiss on reeds, and Brad Clements on trumpet . Scenic design by Tony Cisek . Costume design by Erik Teague . Lighting design by A.J. Guban . Fight choreographer: Robb Hunter . Properties design by Matthew Aldwin McGee . Sound design by Justin Schmitz . Produced by Constellation Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor