Buckle up buttercups! Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party, now showing at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, is not for the timid or faint of heart. Based on the 1928 banned poem by Joseph Moncure March, this brilliant musical brings audiences face to face with characters who dwell outside the fringes of polite society and invites us to indulge in the excesses of Jazz Age sex, booze, and drugs.
Partially developed at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Connecticut in 1977, and then produced in the year 2000 at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, Wild Party earned Lippa the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off-Broadway Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music.
Wild Party is a dark and lurid tale of seduction, abuse, jealousy and murder. With a first-act song that ends with a shielded depiction of sexual and physical assault between two of the main characters, I knew I was in for a bumpy ride. However, I ended up loving this production despite its discomfiting story. Thanks to Lippa’s amazing score and fascinating characters, the masterful direction and choreography by Todd Santa Maria (and Assistant Choreographer Bonnie Gregson), and strong, star-quality performances by the entire cast, I realized that despite the fact that these characters are all going to hell, I might as well sit back and enjoy the ride.
The party is thrown by Queenie, a statuesque blond beauty, played magnificently by Anya Caravella, and her boyfriend Burrs, a vaudeville clown with anger issues, powerfully played by Jeramie Gladman. Queenie wants to throw the party to get back at Burrs for the aforementioned rape; she will flirt with and seduce other men to get Burrs angry enough to publicly expose his bad side.
The party guests are a cross-section of showbiz types from the underside of vaudeville: a hooker, a dancer, a boxer and his not-so-bright doll, a predatory lesbian, a flamboyant brotherly gay couple, a producer, a supposedly innocent minor girl, and other hangers-on. They are all there for their own agendas and are introduced in the song “What a Party.”
Arriving late is Kate, a vivacious party-girl and friend of Queenie, with her date, Mr. Black. Kate has her own motivation for attending the party: She wants Burrs, and is hoping that Queenie will abandon Burrs for Black before the night is through. Thus, the dangerous games begin. We are witness to the maneuvers and couplings and un-couplings of the various partygoers on their quests to get what they came for.
Black is played by Steffan Sampson, whose smooth voice is perfect for the role. Kate is played by Alyssa Serrambana, an actress with an amazing voice and powerful stage presence who pretty much steals the show. She totally embodies her character with every movement, glance, laugh, and tic, alternating between boisterous bravado, nervous laughter, and an “I don’t care” attitude that masks Kate’s underlying insecurity and drug use. Kate has two show-stopping numbers: “Look at Me Now” in Act One when she arrives at the party, and the Act Two opening number, “The Life of the Party.” From her first moment on stage, I felt as if I were witnessing a star being born.
What is particularly nice about this show is that everyone gets a chance in the spotlight. Jacqui Owens is hysterical as the lesbian Madelaine True with the song, “An Old Fashioned Love Story.” This number would be a lilting tune of wishful fantasy were it not for the hard-edged tinge of sexual desperation and glaring double entrendres throughout. Joseph DeVellis and Renee Sutherland, as Eddie and Mae, win the cutest couple award with their oh-so-endearing song, “Two of a Kind.”
Kellen Schultz and Bobby Henry are perfect as the gay impresarios who invite everyone to join their latest project, “A Wild, Wild Party,” which draws upon old Testament stories and wildly misses the point. Even the silent dancer Jackie, played by Amber Mason, has her solo. In a hauntingly beautiful ballet sequence, Jackie dances around sleeping couples like a faerie in the night, although in this Shakespearean moment, the dream has turned into a nightmare.
Like a nightmare, this party ends tragically. After realizing that he has lost Queenie, Burrs loses his mind and appears at the party in full clown face, singing that he believes he is headed for disaster. In the song “Let Me Drown” Burrs embraces his fall and figures that if he is going down, he might as well do it with style. Kate is willing to go along for the ride and supplies the cocaine to do it.
Queenie ends up sleeping with Black and in the morning, Burrs confronts the two of them in the bedroom with a gun. With the climactic song “Make Me Happy,” the scene is infused with so much tension that I found myself on the edge of my seat, wondering who was going to die. Kudos to Gladman, Sampson, and Caravella for their strong acting and well-executed drama.
Other ensemble members include Dan Satter, Rebecca Pokorski, Daisy Stott, Victor Roldan, Elizabeth Brito, Avery Owens, and Joe Cebollero. In addition to the strong actors and singers, I have to give special congratulations to Musical Director Melissa Jones and to accompanying band members Louie Cantarini, Joshua Jackson, Frank Aulenti, Matt and Amy Hannequin, and Stephanie Meyer for doing justice to Lippa’s beautiful and challenging score. The on-point period costumes were designed by Rebecca Pokorski. Congratulations to her and all of the talented production crew for helping to make this show one of my new favorites.
The Wild Party runs through 29 September at Brookfield Theatre for the Arts.