BWW Reviews: Until Someone Gets Hurt - THE WILD PARTY at Teatro101

By: May. 23, 2011
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Baltimore's theater scene is bursting with exciting new companies hotly competing for your attention.  Unless you're diligent, you'll miss some good stuff.  One company I had missed until last night was Teatro101 currently performing at the Mobtown space at Meadow Mills.  Teatro101 apparently plans to specialize in the production of new and/or challenging musicals.  And heaven knows, its (by my count) fifth production, The Wild Party, fills that bill.

Think of Chicago, think of Cabaret and of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  If you can imagine a production mid-way among them all (with a little bit of Pagliacci thrown in), you have a pretty clear picture of The Wild Party.

Based on a long scandalous poem by Joseph Moncure March that literally got itself banned in Boston in 1928, it follows a doomed foursome (Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, her boyfriend Burrs, a clown, Queenie's good friend Kate, and Kate's boyfriend Black) on a long day's journey into the night.  It is the night of the eponymous wild party, hosted by Queenie and Burrs with the more or less explicit mutual intenti

on of drumming up a rift between them to resolve the sexual boredom that's crept in over their two years together.  They get more, and worse, than they bargained for. 

The destructive games they play are all Albee's George and Martha, while the cynicism, the strutting dance steps performed by chorines flouncing in vintage underwear is all Kander, Ebb and Fosse.  Auteur Andrew Lippa's music isn't up to the Chicago/Cabaret standard, but it certainly has its moments.  Lippa writes especially well for multiple voices, sometimes creating sort of a madrigal effect - if one can speak of madrigals sung to a Jazz Age beat and with jazz harmonies.  There is a moment (during the song THE JUGGERNAUT) which is almost vocalese (the use of human voices in song to duplicate the effect of jazz instruments).  And the cast puts that and many similar musical moments of close harmony over with great, sometimes jaw-dropping skill.

In fact, this cast (all non-Equity except for the two principal leads, Jamie Eacker as Queenie and Kevin S. McAllister as Burrs) are the big reason to see this show.  Their singing, dancing, and acting are unexceptionably energetic, and at times much more.  Most of them are on stage most of the time, including the intermission, never breaking character.  There is something going on almost all the time, and the eye keeps jumping all over the stage to try to keep up, which is tiring in an intimate little house where the audience are virtually on top of the performers, but worthwhile.

The format alternates among scenes advancing the principal story, big choral numbers, and set pieces designed to showcase individual characters, which also gives the rank and file characters and cast members a chance to distinguish themselves.  My personal favorite was Lisa Pastella's raucous cameo delivering AN OLD-FASHIONED LOVE STORY, a lament evoking her character's frustrating evening as a lesbian womanizer on the make, which brought the house down.

In the end, of course, the principals have to carry the show, and they do.  Queenie, a fascinating amalgam of desirability, anger, despair, and ambivalence, which makes her unknowable and unpredictable but still pitiable, is brought to vivid life by Eacker.  McAllister seems to get into the very skin of Burrs, who starts out wearing his clown nose as a joke, and who gradually morphs that image, and indeed his body and face into something far more sinister.  Coby Kay Callahan brings out both the pathos and determination of Kate, as she doggedly pursues Burrs through a deepening alcoholic and narcotic haze.  As Black, Michael Robinson has the easiest burden: to evince a decent soul who has fallen among damned and been invited to join them.  Yet even the restraint this role calls for is not without its challenges, which Robinson well meets.

What is it about this poem that continues to fascinate?  (And it does; it's noteworthy that when, in 2000, this musical was playing off Broadway, there was another musical of the same name, based on the same poem, playing on Broadway.)  Could the appeal be simply that The Wild Party satisfies morbid curiosity as to the debauchery of the Prohibition Era?  That hardly seems enough, since every age rediscovers debauchery for itself.  Granted, the style differs a little from one time and place to another.  This setting here, a Chicago flat in 1928, obviously is different from, say, a Norse mead-hall.  But common to alcoholic orgies in every age are the lowered inhibitions and the tendencies to say the unforgivable, choose sex partners thoughtlessly, and lapse into violence.  We all know what it looks like.

True, there are period details, like the emergence of somewhat out-of-the-closet gays and lesbians circulating among the self-destructive straight people, a historic event in early 20th century urban life.  It's actually a little off-putting, because there is surely, in the treatment of these homosexual characters, more than a whiff of the notion that their presence enhances the decadence of the event (I told you this was reminiscent of Cabaret).  But I thought we had all agreed that in this 21st century, we do not regard gays as decadent.  So which is it?  Are we being faithful to a 1920s source which conveys the retrograde message or are we just purveying the message?  The fact that the playwright, composer and lyricist is himself gay and presumably sensitive to the signals the show puts out just makes this all the more puzzling.  In any case, little touches like that, and a set cluttered with hard booze bottles despite glaring reminders that officially it is Prohibition time, are piquant, but hardly more.  (To go back to Cabaret, the decadent little world depicted there acquired enormous resonance by being juxtaposed with the metastasizing evil of Nazism.  That kind of contrast is not available to the world of this musical.)

So, if the appeal is not in the period details, then where?  On reflection I think it's the same sick fascination we all have for traffic accidents, the bloodier the better.  Dramatically, we hate, but we also love, to see people at the edge, pushing themselves further and further out.  I'm reminded of the old joke: It's only funny till someone gets hurt; then it's hilarious.  Jacobean audiences liked the stage littered with corpses at the end; we settle for one or two corpses and people's lives shattered.

And that the poem and this show certainly deliver.  There may not be much depth to it, much in the way of a philosophical point, but it's absorbing to see.  Credit where credit is also due: Artistic Director and show Director David Gregory is to be commended for his gutsiness, along with Choreographer Katie Harrington, in herding all the cats for this complex production.  It is not the greatest musical of all time, but, as I've been pointing out, it has a good share of moments, and they maximize it.

Well, almost.  A quibble: the auditorium, sonically adequate for plays, is not particularly well-adapted for musicals.  Even with the capable pit band under the direction of Cedric D. Lyles perceptibly pulling back, lyrics were frequently hard to make out.  And the performers were not miked, so far as I could tell.  It is gutsy to put big shows in small houses, but in the end big houses with good acoustics work better.  It would be my hope to see this troupe progress as Alexandria's Signature Theatre, to which I think it is comparable in its ambitions, has done.  And Signature now has its own purpose-built house.

It is too bad that you are reading this late in the show's run.  But as this is not a piece you're going to get a chance to see often, I urge you to make a point of catching it in the few remaining performances.

The Wild Party by Andrew Lippa, based on the Poem by Joseph Moncure March, through May 28, presented by Teatro101, at Mobtown Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Rd., Suite 114, Baltimore, MD 21211.  Tickets $20.  443-831-2647,  Sex, violence, alcohol and drug use, adult language, adult situations.



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