Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
If you want 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 theatergoers had the opportunity to see two brand new musicals of the same name and story, one on Broadway, written by Michael John LaChiusa (Marie Christine, Hello Again), and the other Off-Broadway, written by Andrew Lippa (The Addams Family, Big Fish). In the end, both shows offered much to admire through very different approaches to the source material. However, Lippa's The Wild Party is the much more often mounted version and is the one presented by Miami University.
The Wild Party is the story of the volatile relationship of Queenie, a stunningly gorgeous dancer, and Burrs, a vaudeville comic, in the New York 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 they 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 high-strung 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 other adaptation) and offers energetic character numbers, impassioned ballads, and comedic charm songs. The wonderfully melodic and theatrical tunes are 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," "What Is It About Her? (a sobering lament by Burrs about his need for Queenie), and "Make Me Happy" are each excellent in their own right and create an overall fierce, intense and poignant score.
The book is also by Andrew Lippa. He wisely focuses the story on the two main couples, and produces fully realized characters that are realistically flawed and conflicted. The book could use clarification in a few spots, and some of the humorous numbers seem misplaced or too presentational in style. However, Mr. Lippa also infuses an overriding tone that suggests the potential for more violence and conflict that creates an overall effect of sustained dramatic tension matched by very few musicals.
At Miami, director Ed Cohen provides clear and sustained motivations for the characters and effective use of lyrical cues in his blocking, as well as a fresh approach to several numbers. Mr. Cohen also establishes and maintains the foreboding tone necessary for the piece. The dances by choreographer Jay Goodlett are vibrant and period appropriate, and adapted well across a mix of dance abilities within the cast. The direction and the choreography help to focus the action visually on the four lead characters. The production boasts a very strong band led by Stephen Lytle.
Miami University doesn't have a musical theatre major, and there are some seasons (such as the recently announced 2017 2018) which don't include any musicals. This has sometimes resulted in the musicals they do produce being rough around the edges. For The Wild Party, the talent level is much higher than other shows witnessed in the past by this reviewer. As Queenie, freshman Abby Chafe brings the requisite depth and vulnerability, and stage presence beyond her age and experience. The role is vocally challenging, and Ms. Chafe does well with the material, except for some unsteadiness and minor pitch issues at the very top of the part's range. Her best singing is with "Raise the Roof." Jeremiah Plessinger is intense as her brutal lover Burrs and sings with passion and skill.
Alisha Bond is appropriately free-spirited, pathetic and desperate as Kate, and displays an impressive belt when singing the role's jazz/rock riffs. As Black, Brenton Sullivan sings soulfully and is poised, caring, and suave. Supplying noteworthy performances as the other guests are Melissa Rowan (a funny Madelaine True), Daniel True-Omaits (a dimwitted Eddie), and Cassidy Steele (a perky Mae) among others. The entire cast does a praiseworthy job of maintaining characterizations throughout without pulling focus.
The multi-leveled and compartmentalized set by Gion DeFrancesco contains many unique details which help to supply Mr. Cohen with opportunities for varied blocking and has plenty of reminders of the vaudeville world in which Burrs and Queenie exist. The costumes by Melanie Mortimore are fun and apt for the roaring '20s setting. Marty Wooster's lighting deserves kudos for assisting in highlighting who is singing, and offers well-suited use of shadows and varying intensities and saturation across the stage.
The Wild Party is a mature, sometimes profane, passionate and melodic musical. Miami University's production showcases a lot of talented students and a well-prepared and skilled creative team. The musical continues at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in the Gates-Abegglen Theatre through April 30, 2017. For tickets and information, call 513-529-3053 or visit www.MiamiOH.edu/theatre.