Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Wild Party"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

Reviews of Current Productions

note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Alexander Wright

SpeakEasy Stage Company's "The Wild Party"

Reviewed by Alexander Wright

Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChuisa
Book by Michael John LaChuisa and George C. Wolfe
Based on the Poem by Joseph Moncure March

Directed by Andrew Volkoff
Music Directed and Conducted by Paul S. Katz
Choreography by Laurel Stachowicz
Orchestration by Bruce Coughlin

Susan Zeeman Rogers, Set Design
James Milkey, Lighting Design
Stacey Stephens, Costume Design
Matt Griffin, Sound Design
Dana Elizabeth Wolf, Production Stage Manager
Emi Ridenour, Assistant Stage Manager
Johnmichael Rossi, Assistant to the Director
Caroline McInnis, Properties Master

Queenie..........Bridget Beirne
Burrs........Christopher Chew
Jackie..........Kent French
Miss Madeline True...Lisa Korak
Sally..........Rachel Peters
Eddie Mackrel.....Philip Woods
Mae..........Jackie Duffy
Nadine.....Bree Greig
Phil D'Armano.....James Jackson, Jr.
Oscar D'Armano.....Brian Robinson
Dolores Montoya.....Maureen Keiller
Gold..........Trevor Little
Goldberg..........John Porcaro
Black..........Jose Delgado
Kate..........Merle Perkins

SpeakEasy Stage Company has proven itself to be the leader of the Boston area theater companies in presenting the freshest and newest musicals from off-Broadway and now, even, Broadway. This accomplishment alone should be highly praised and theater goers should be lining up in droves to buy tickets to their productions. After all, you can count on your hands the number of Boston theaters that are truly committed to newer material and are willing to take such risks. This time SpeakEasy has selected Michael John LaChuisa's "The Wild Party" based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March. It's unfortunate, given this wonderful opportunity, that SpeakEasy has staged a party that's more in tune with a Barbie birthday celebration than anything wild.

"The Wild Party" centers on the relationship between vaudeville dancer Queenie (Ms. Beirne) and her somewhat abusive live-in partner, Burrs (Mr. Chew). Queenie is bored so Burrs decides to throw a party, promising lots of "skin and gin". A catalyst for the party arrives in the form of revelers Kate (Ms. Perkins) and Black (Mr. Delgado), which eventually leads to a tragic result. The rest of the characters are a colorful crew composed of bisexuals, swingers, innocents, has-beens, and drug addicts.

The director of this production, Mr. Volkoff, for some reason, has decided to tone this production down so severely that you might think you're watching your daughter and her friends enact Barbie's 21st birthday party with Ken, Skipper, and the rest of the gang in tow. Maybe he was trying to avoid having this production banned (as the poem was in Boston in the late 1920s) if it had been staged with the gusto, desperation, and debauchery at its core. Now I know that sounds extreme, but I'm trying to make a point about how far off the mark this production really is.

The book (by Mr. LaChuisa and Mr. Wolfe) for "The Wild Party" contains some very explosive and controversial material, but rather than play to the hard edge of the characters and their desperate behaviors, Mr. Volkoff has decided to underplay nearly every opportunity available. Desperate people often turn to desperate methods for finding happiness and burying their insecurities. This doesn't materialize nearly at the level it should for this production.

The show starts off promisingly and it looks like things are going to start kicking into gear, especially during "Welcome to My Party", which is beautifully executed by Ms. Beirne and allows her ample moments to shine so brightly. However, things take a downturn and this production begins to limp until the big company number "Gin" about half way through the show.

During this time we are introduced individually to each of the guests. The problem is mostly with their behaviors and interaction onstage. For example, the bisexual playboy Jackie (Mr. French) portrays his character as so clean cut and high brow that you might think he stepped straight from the pages of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. There appears to be no reaction from him when he snorts a line of coke, or any indication of his carnal desires when he is supposedly trying to seduce one of a pair of singing black brothers who are lovers, particularly when they are dancing with enough room to fit an entire body between them.

In addition, Mae (Ms. Duffy), an ex-chorus girl married to black boxer Eddie, (Mr. Woods) looks, behaves, and speaks as if she stepped right out of a tea for two party in "No No Nanette" and wouldn't be caught dead at a gathering like this. Along the same lines, Miss Madeline True (Ms. Korak) shows the utmost restraint for someone who is supposed to be a lesbian stripper. Also, the black brothers/lovers the D'Armanos (Mr. Jackson Jr. and Mr. Robinson) conjure up memories of a couple of characters from "In Living Color" where a black singing duo is portrayed as wholesome as white bread.

Up to this point the only two characters who seem comfortable at this party are the drugged-up nearly comatose girlfriend of Madeline, Sally (Ms. Peters) and the washed up singer Delores Montoya (Ms. Keiller). These two actresses help us to remember we're peeking in on a party where something naughty is supposed to be going on. Ms. Keiller nails her two numbers, "Moving Uptown" and particularly, "When It Ends". Ms. Peters adds something very haunting, extreme, and dark as she lugs around the stage suppressing her internal conflicts with an overabundance of drugs.

The arrival of Queenie's old friend Kate and Black does little to add the expected atmosphere. It's disappointing that the number "Best Friend" (Ms. Beirne and Ms. Perkins) turns out to be uncannily similar to "Bosom Buddies" from "Mame". As staged at SpeakEasy it lacks the bite and sharp kick necessary for this party.

In a party where sex and gin is supposed to be the focus, there are minimal elements to convey such an environment. First, the liquor bottles for the entire party fit on two tiny end tables on either side of the stage. Second, a majority of the cast does not progress very convincingly from sober to drunk as the liquor flows freely. Third, the groping of body parts is quick and done more as a quick goose on the ass rather than with sexual intent. Lastly, the kissing between characters comes off a lot like a quick peck on the lips as opposed to one with any kind of desperate passion.

The high point of this production is the integration of the excellent and top notch vocal ensemble and pit band. This show sounds very, very good and each of the members of the cast contributes equally. The music is somewhat jazz, somewhat blues, and even a little bit contemporary. As mentioned earlier, the "Welcome to My Party" and "Gin" numbers are executed wonderfully. Also, Ms. Beirne and Mr. Delgado beautifully render the duet, "People Like Us". Both Mr. Jackson Jr. and Mr. Robinson are also vocally adept during their several numbers.

As for the leads, Mr. Chew and Ms. Beirne lack the chemistry to create a truly explosive relationship. It's almost as if they are operating on two different planes, rather than have some kind of destructive dependency on each other. The two are more than up to the challenge vocally, but it takes more than a strong and serviceable voice to create and sustain a convincing character to back that voice up. A little more vulnerability from Ms. Beirne would go a long way to help us believe that she is akin to "damaged goods". Mr. Chew could benefit from playing the opposite at times, rather than blustering through most of the show.

The same pretty much goes for Ms. Perkins and Mr. Delgado. Both are more than vocally competent. But as Kate, Ms. Perkins does little more than wave her arms around repeatedly and crouch down to make a point. She should be the biggest diva of the party, yet she seems on a par with Queenie and Dolores. Mr. Delgado endows his character with a flat and stale persona that seems out of sync with that of a confident and sexy gigolo.

As for as the technical elements of SpeakEasy's "The Wild Party", the set is functional and serviceable for the theater at the BCA as well as the lighting. Another let down for this production is the costume design by Mr. Stephens. Many of the men look too contemporary for the late 1920s. Mr. Chew looks ridiculous in his vaudeville suit, which is a shiny purple and does nothing to conjure that era. Also, with a party that promises "skin", it would have been a good choice to use some outfits that let the ladies show off their bodies a little bit. Most notably, Ms. Korak's outfit gives us absolutely no indication that she is a stripper. Also, Ms. Duffy's outfit provides no pizzazz either.

The SpeakEasy production of "The Wild Party" certainly doesn't live up to its title. With a stronger sense of desperation, decay, and debauchery it could be a party to remember. However, after viewing this production you won't wakeup with any kind of hangover and you'll be able to put Barbie, Ken and crew away until the next slumber party.

Alexander Wright

"The Wild Party" (1 - 23 February)
539 Tremont Street, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide