Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
The Wild Party
Sometimes, a theater group has such success with a show that they have to return to it years later. In 2003, the musical theatre program at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) mounted a stellar production of The Wild Party that still burns in the memory of many longtime theatergoers. Twenty years later, they again presented an excellently staged and performed production of the musical, one that is likewise likely to be remembered.
If one wants to start an argument among musical theater aficionados, ask which is the better of the two musical adaptations of the Joseph Moncure March poem "The Wild Party." In the spring of 2000, New York audiences had the opportunity to see two brand new musicals of the same name and story, one by Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, Hello Again) and the other by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family, Big Fish). Ultimately, both shows offered much to admire through very different approaches to the source material. However, Lippa's The Wild Party is the version more often presented and is the choice again at CCM.
The Wild Party is the story of the volatile relationship between Queenie, a stunningly gorgeous dancer, and Burrs, a vaudeville comic, in New York during the Prohibition days of the 1920s. Queenie, fed up by the latest of many brutal physical outbursts from her lover, seeks to find a way to humiliate Burrs publicly, and suggests that the pair host a party. An eccentric parade of guests, including the vivacious Kate with her new beau, the mysterious Mr. Black, fill the small apartment. As Queenie, Burrs, Kate and Black stir the restless emotions and jealousy within each other, the evening turns from wild debauchery to destruction and murder.
The infectious score by Andrew Lippa has a contemporary feel (as opposed to the more period jazz flavor of the LaChiusa adaptation) and offers energetic songs that drive the action forward, along with character numbers, impassioned ballads, and comedic charm songs. The wonderfully melodic, pulsating, and theatrical music is matched by uniformly witty and well-crafted lyrics. Songs such as "Raise the Roof" (Queenie's enthusiastic party kickoff), "Poor Child," "An Old-Fashioned Love Story," "A Wild, Wild Party," "The Life of the Party," and "What Is It About Her?" (a sobering lament sung by Burrs about his need for Queenie) are each excellent individually and create an overall fierce, intense, and poignant score. I think "Make Me Happy," presented toward the end of the show, is one of the most tension-filled and dramatic pieces found in musical theater and a masterpiece of story, music, and words.
Andrew Lippa also wrote the book, and he wisely focused the story on the two main couples, producing fully realized characters that are realistically flawed and conflicted. The book could use clarification in a few spots, and some of the humorous numbers can feel a bit too presentational in style. However, Mr. Lippa also infused an overriding tone that suggests the potential for more violence and conflict, creating an overall effect of sustained dramatic tension matched by very few musicals.
The musical, an extra CCM musical this semester, was performed at downtown Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center rather than on campus. Director Eric Santagata portrayed Burrs in the 2003 CCM staging, so he knows the material very well. He provided clear and sustained motivations for the characters and captured the foreboding tone necessary for the piece. Santagata used a unique way of presenting the sexual encounters between Burrs and Queenie, which was both theatrically effective and tasteful. Eliza Levy supplied active and varied choreography which was period appropriate, though some of the dances were limited by the cramped quarters of the venue. Steve Goers led an excellent three-piece band.
As Queenie, SA Nelson supplied a fierce and extremely committed performance featuring impressive vocal prowess and depth in her acting. Much of the show's success rests on the authenticity and ability for the audience to root for the character, and Nelson succeeded in every way. Stone Mountain embodied Burrs with the requisite menacing presence, and supplied intensity and passionate singing. Sarah Pansing was appropriately free-spirited, pathetic, and desperate as Kate, and displayed an impressive belt when singing the role's jazz/rock riffs. In both looks and vocals, she resembled Idina Menzel, who created the role in New York, while bringing her own take on the material. As Black, Jamal Stone sang soulfully and was poised, caring and suave. Supplying noteworthy performances as the other guests were Julia Schick (a drolly Madelaine True), Matthew Danforth (an imposing and endearingly dimwitted Eddie), and Jenna Bienvenue (a perky Mae), among others. The ensemble cast members showed off triple-threat talent.
Unfortunately, the performance space was at the same level as the seating due to being staged in a non-theater space. As a result, most of the audience couldn't see below the waist-line of the performers, and that obscured view encumbered the experience to some extent for those not in the front row. The uncredited set design featured handsome and period-appropriate modular pieces which captured the essence of the cramped apartment sufficiently. Several panels were used creatively to define space and enhance blocking. The attractive costumes by Brittannie Travis were modern takes on 1920s style clothing, similar to the approach taken by the revival of Chicago. Sydney Riddle's lighting was varied and well-executed, especially considering the venue.
The Wild Party is a mature, exhilarating, and intense musical, and CCM's second production of the show featured superb performances and first-rate direction. The run was sold out, but those who did get to attend were in for a good time, and isn't that what a party is for?
The Wild Party ran from January 12-14, 2023, at the Contemporary Arts Center, 44 East 6th Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information on CCM events, call 513-556-4183 or visit ccmonstage.universitytickets.com/w/?cid=168.