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Review: Things Get Naughty in WILD PARTY at Theater West End

Review: Things Get Naughty in WILD PARTY at Theater West End

Derek Critzer has done it again. The director of WILD PARTY at Theater West End has given each of the four shows he's helmed for Sanford's upstart venue, which he also co-owns, a sense of art and style that is consistently tasteful.

There is talent on display here before a single actor has taken the stage, as patrons walk through the door into a vibrant cabaret that one might call "cirque du risqué."

WILD PARTY is a showcase of everything I love about Theater West End: gorgeous lighting, creative set design, top-notch casting, and a willingness to stage shows that aren't being done somewhere else fifty times a year - even if this particular musical, about a 1920s love rectangle that implodes during a debaucherous soiree, doesn't quite compel.

The show is loosely based on a 1928 poem, with a thin story but colorful characters. There's Queenie, the blonde bombshell who craves adventure, and her violent lover, a lusty clown named Burrs. Seeking some excitement, they decide to host a party and invite a Studio 54-ish assortment of pleasure-seeking sinners. There's incest, orgy, betrayal, and cocaine. And somebody probably has a gun.

As I write that description, it occurs to me that there's one heck of a story in here somewhere. But as-is, playwright Andrew Lippa's musical (first staged Off-Broadway in 1999), is content to let these characters sing about their trysts and desires for two hours while doing very little of substance with them, at least not until Act II, where the modest twists live.

Until then, nearly all the songs are either "I Want" numbers or choral exposition in lieu of action. I love a sung-through musical - which this very nearly is - but it's only effective if the songs are advancing a story. There needs to be something more between "I Want" and the resolution. WILD PARTY's first exciting moment comes at the very end of the show, which is two acts too late.

In workshops and Off-Broadway, WILD PARTY's cast members included Kristen Chenoweth, Julia Murney, Taye Diggs, Brian d'Arcy James, and Idina Menzel. Those are big names, and one senses these are characters that actors would love to play. At Theater West End, you can tell the cast is having a blast, and the leads are worthy of their forebears.

As Queenie, Kristen Sheola brings a 1920s archetype to life and makes her real, slaying song after song with her strong and capable voice.

She's complemented by Michelle Knight as Kate, a frienemy of sorts to the party hosts. Knight's knockout vocals are truly wowing: big, belting, brassy, and with an always-well-timed growl. I wasn't surprised to flip through the program and find that she's been on Broadway (Jersey Boys), Off-Broadway (Disenchanted), and on two national tours (Rizzo in Grease and an understudy in Annie's 30th Anniversary run).

As Burrs the clown, Preston Ellis holds his own with a really appealing vocal quality. His dynamic performance here has me hoping he'll headline the musical adaptation of Joaquin Phoenix's Joker (which I've already decided should be a thing). His Act II meltdown in "Let Me Drown" is maybe the most dramatically striking moment of the show.

Rounding out the leads, we have Terrence J. Jamison, who already won me over in Theater West End's outstanding production of The Color Purple last fall. Here he stars as Black, deftly alternating between modes of anger, comedy, and seduction - whatever the libretto calls for. He has some very nice range, showcased in the occasional oh-so-low note or vocal run.

Indeed, the whole ensemble is outstanding, and their harmonies really vibe. One nice thing about WILD PARTY is that even many of the supporting roles get moments to shine, and each actor here makes the most of it.

I was especially impressed with the dancing. Choreographer Amanda Warren had her work cut out for her, because there's a lot happening across the stage, and yet each movement struck me as thought-out and precise. There is one sequence in which the entire cast engages in various kinds of intercourse, conveyed through dance. It was so bold, provocative, and well executed that the audience was laughing - a mix, I think, of polite embarrassment, amazement, and shock.

Kudos, too, to costume designer Monica Titus for vivid costumes that sell the setting and fit the performers well.

Coincidentally, a different musical adaptation of this same 1928 poem debuted on Broadway back in 2000. I admit I'm not familiar with that one, by Michael John LaChiusa, but I'd love to see Critzer and the West End crew tackle it someday too. This is a theatre I'd trust with even the most questionable of source material.

To date, I've had only one consistent criticism of the shows staged here: the sound system. In past productions, microphones have cut out occasionally, or would simply fail to register sound, among other aural oddities. Happily, Theatre West End has invested in a new sound system, and it sounds great. There's still just one problem: the band overpowers the performers at times. Happily, this is an entirely surmountable problem, and I'm confident the crew will nail the balance now that they're working with the right tools.

Besides, at least Theater West End has a live band at every show (technically a seven-person orchestra sporting over a dozen instruments, this time under the baton of Austin McElwain), and its musicians are quite good. So are the rest of the performers: Casey Sweenie, Cody McNeeley, Wendy Starkland, Bernadette Siudock, Michael Cleary, Elisabeth Christie, David Kotary, Matt Rothenberg, Sarah Huff, Joshua Oliveras, Haywood Dunston, Alex Iacuzzo, Gabby Hatch, Gabrielle Toledo, Kristin Paradero, Francesca Natal, and Nicole Natal.

If a WILD PARTY sounds like your idea of a night out, the show runs at Theater West End through April 14, 2019. To get your tickets, visit the theater's website or call 407-548-6285.

What did you think of WILD PARTY at Theater West End? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photo Credit: Theater West End

A Note on Locution: In its Off-Broadway debut, this show was called The Wild Party. As licensed (and in its program), it is variably entitled "Andrew Lippa's Wild Party" or just "Wild Party" (no "The").

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