BWW Reviews: UAC's Wild, THE WILD PARTY
Coming off of an impressive five 2015 Broadway World awards, suburban-based Up And Coming Theater stages one of its most ambitious theatrical events yet --Andrew Lippa's THE WILD PARTY--in an Elk Grove Village nightclub. For the most part, it pays off handsomely.
Based on the 1928 racy (for the time, anyway) poem by Joseph Moncure March, Andrew Lippa's THE WILD PARTY (not to be confused with Michael John LaChiusa's THE WILD PARTY which debuted in the same 2000 theater season and also based on the poem), the plot concerns a platinum blonde bombshell flapper named Queenie (Jill Sesso), her boyfriend Burrs (a Vaudeville clown with a sadistic streak played by Dan Ermel) and --after one particular abusive fight, the wild party she throws in order to passive-aggressively get back at him by flirting with anyone and everyone at the party. The party soon spirals out of both of their control with tragic results.
Normally, blonde jazz baby Queenie is played more bitter and jaded. Sesso opts to portray the character more tragically; capable of manipulating situations in a passive aggressive way, but unable or unwilling to pull herself out of the mess she has placed herself in. For the most part, it works. The character comes off a bit more sympathetic and as a result lacks some of the teeth and nails required for subsequent scenes when her rival Kate (Linda Andrews) arrives with clean-cut new beau Mr. Black (Steve Peter).
Ermel's Burrs initially comes off as cruel and controlling, but Ermel does find a way to elicit some sympathy for the character with the solo "What Is It About Her." I'm not one to blame the victim of physical abuse, but Ermel shows genuine remorse and sadness over the sadistic feelings that bubble up to the surface whenever he is around his love. It adds the necessary emotional weight to the stakes of when the relationship begins to dissolve and his subsequent reaction to the possible loss of his love.
While Sesso's Queenie is a compellingly emotional wreck, Andrews' Kate is a sheer force of nature. She knows what she wants (Burrs) and immediately introduces Queenie to Black in order to make a play for Burrs. Andrews is definitely one to watch. She has a big, booming voice and whenever she is on stage, she commands attention. Her two solos, "Look At Me Now" and "Life of the Party," are showstoppers. As Queenie's world crumbles around her, Kate is only too happy to pick up the pieces.
Peter's Black is handsome, dashing and sings with tender conviction. He sees himself as Queenie savior, even though Queenie is still not sure if she wants to be saved. The character is a bit under-written and Peter makes the most of what he's given as Queenie's latest love-struck suitor.
There's more to this party than just its core quartet, though. There is some fine ensemble work around, but there are also some notable standouts. As lesbian partygoer Madelaine True, Emily Durham works the crowd and brings some much needed comic relief with the lesbian lalment "An Old-Fashioned Love Story."
Likewise, J.C. O'Sullivan and Jenna Payne (as hot-headed boxer Eddie and his bubbly moll Mae, respectively) are both funny and charming as they explain to the other attendees why they are "Two of a Kind."
Also worth mentioning is the comedic work of James Faust and David Spearman as the not-so-closeted lyricist and composer team who use the party as a vehicle to solicit a patron to produce their last work, an epic musical about the Bible ("A Wild, Wild Party).
The production features energetic choreography by Dina DiCostanzo that is a mix of FOSSE as well as THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (which is to say it is jazzy, exuberant and Broadway caliber).
Director Jason Harrington makes the most out of the spartan set design (a number of chairs and props, really). The economic set design reminds one immediately of the CHICAGO revival (a show it is often compared to). Even the most gifted and talented director cannot overcome all obstacles and such is the case with the show's unique theater space. Harrington's production uses Phoenix's dance floor as a thrust stage. Unfortunately, it's flanked with six columns (three on each side of the stage). Seats on either side come with obstructed views, making the cheaper standing room only (SRO) tickets the better value as you are at least center for most of the action.
Producer Lindsey Weiss has attempted to accommodate for the obstruction by encouraging audience members to get up and move at any time during the production. In theory, this is a fine compromise, but in practice, the process ends up being more distracting --pulling focus from the events on stage to those in the bar around you. In then end, you feel much more like a participant of THE WILD PARTY than an audience member. Perhaps that was the point.
With acting, singing and dancing this top notch, one does wish UAC had RSVP'd for a more traditional theater space. I can't help but think I didn't see everything that was going on at THE WILD PARTY. My tip: opt for the SRO and hang out near the bar for this 90-minute intermission-less production.
UAC's production of Andrew Lippa's THE WILD PARTY has one additional performance left today at 5 p.m. at Phoenix Bar and Nightclub, 1932 E. Higgins Road, Elk Grove Village. $20 VIP seating sold out, $15 SRO remain. uactheater.com to purchase tickets.