Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
Lips like coals aglow.
Her face was a tinted mask of snow.
What a back she had!
Her legs were built to drive men mad.
And she did.
There was little she hadn’t been through.
And she liked her lovers violent, and vicious:
Queenie was sexually ambitious.
Now you know.
A fascinating woman, as they go.
From the poem The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March (1899-1977)
Sutton Foster is electrifying as Queenie the sexually insatiable nightclub performer who incites men to violence in this revival of the 2000 Off-Broadway musical The Wild Party. Lean and fierce and slinking around in a taut white sequined flapper dress and wearing a curly blonde wig, Ms. Foster’s star quality and performing talents are on dazzling display in this problematic Jazz Age ode to decadence. She continues to grow in her versatile stage career that has included such light shows as Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Drowsy Chaperone, Shrek, Young Frankenstein, and the more recent serious Violet.
Written in 1926 but not published until 1928 because of its suggestive content, Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party is an epic poem about an assortment of seedy show business types in Hollywood. Rich in period detail and the sensibility of the era, it’s a fascinating mash up of the styles of T.S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Andrew Lippa’s workmanlike book very faithfully shapes a plot out of the poem’s incidents, characters, and descriptions. Queenie has been having a charged affair with the violent vaudevillian clown Burrs. The couple throw a wild party and she sets her sights on the attractive and good-natured African-American friend of one the guests, Mr. Black. Their subsequent romance causes catastrophic complications. Also at the party are a thug, a hooker, an out lesbian, and assorted underworld types.
Mr. Lippa’s score is an uneven creation. The music is mostly a brassy, catchy pastiche of Duke Ellington-type jazz tunes that fitfully evokes the era. The lyrics are often harsh, arch, and rudimentary.
Don’t you wanna be
The life of the party?
Don’t you wanna be
The cream of the crop?
Don’t you wanna feel those shivering fits
Till someone call it quits
Or someone calls a cop?
Though true to the material and professional, collectively the songs fall short of great artistry. For this production, he has rewritten the show’s finale, tailoring it to showcase the great skills of Sutton Foster. She is commanding performing the tragic “A Happy Ending.”
The first act drags with a lot of exposition, production numbers, and overdone representations of grittiness, but the second act briskly reaches its shattering conclusion.
Steven Pasquale who made his New York City theatrical debut as a cop in the original production of the show, now takes the leading role of Burrs. Mr. Pasquale is sensual and coarse as the character but also brings great sensitivity, making his portrayal dynamically realized.
The charismatic Brandon Victor Dixon winningly plays the heroic Mr. Black and his chemistry with Ms. Foster charges the show with passion.
Miriam Shor, the original Yitzhak from Off-Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, makes the most of her sardonic show-stopping number “An Old Fashioned Love Story” as the stripe-suited, hair-slicked lesbian Madelaine True. Forcefully veering from musical comedy to dramatic depth, she ferociously sells this character song overcoming the characteristically awkward lyrics:
See that girl
In the chair?
How she wants me.
She’s a bee
I could free
From the hive.
I would never dare deceive her
She’s a very clever beaver
With a quality I like
Ryan Andes, Joaquina Kalukango, and Talene Monahon play the other principal underclass roles with tremendous glee and talent.
The physical staging by director Leigh Silverman and choreographer Sonya Tayeh is expert in liveliness and seamy imagery that includes sexual situations. A number of Ms. Tayeh’s movements recalls Bob Fosse’s “Rich Man’s Frug” from Sweet Charity and Michael Bennett’s “Turkey Lurkey Time” from Promises, Promises and are wonderfully danced by the captivating ensemble.
Mark Barton’s superb lighting design adds a desirable hellish dimension with hues of red and orange that artfully envelope the stage at times throughout the evening.
A cool Edward Hopper touch is the clotheslines hanging atop the action with a selection of garments remaining visible during the show above the orchestra. It’s just one of the elements of Donyale Werle’s clever scenic design. There are also parts of walls, a bathtub, and furniture that are strategically wheeled out and give the show arresting visual stage pictures at a fast pace.
Clint Ramos’ costumes are a vibrant collection of authentic looking 1920’s outfits. There are flapper dresses, dark suits, and fedoras galore.
The Wild Party originally opened in February 2000 Off-Broadway at The Manhattan Theatre Club and ran for 54 performances. Coincidentally a Broadway version with a score by Michael John LaChiusa and book by Mr. LaChiusa and its director George C. Wolfe opened in April 2000 and ran for 68 performances. In both cases, critical and popular acclaim were illusive. That the poem has intrigued notable theatrical figures to adapt it is a testament to its power, though none could successfully transpose that work’s grimness into a cohesive musical.
This Encores! Off-Center revival is very well executed and impeccably performed but cannot transcend the flawed writing that keeps it in the category of an interesting curio rather than a great show.
The Wild Party (July 15-18, 2015)
Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours with one intermission