In 1928, Joseph Moncure March wrote an epic narrative poem titled "The Wild Party." Set in the Roaring 20's, it told the story of entertainers Queenie and Burrs, their tempestuous relationship, and a raucous soiree in which it all went to hell. In 2000, two entirely different musicals called "The Wild Party," both based on March's poem, opened in New York City, one on Broadway, one off-Broadway. It is the off-Broadway version, written by Andrew Lippa, that Blackfriars has chosen to stage to close out its current season.
One of Blackfriars' strengths is that it takes risks. And "The Wild Party" is definitely risky - or should I say, risqué. The story can be summed up as "boozy, self-destructive lovers get in a fight, decide to have a party, invite a gaggle of their depraved friends, everybody has sex, and then fights, and then they pay the price for their debauchery." The show is definitely intended for mature audiences (two words: simulated orgy), and tonally and thematically it shares considerable ground with Broadway stalwarts "Chicago" and "Cabaret." (Bad girls and worse men make terrible decisions, enjoy the heady highs of hedonism, and then reap the inevitable repercussions of their actions.) Although the blues- and jazz-tinged songs don't quite live up to those found in the aforementioned Kander & Ebb classics, "The Wild Party" has its own seductive charms.
Blackfriars' production has a lot going for it. It looks fantastic - John Haldoupis has done his typically stellar job designing a gorgeously appointed set that adds an exotic flourish to the sensuous goings-on, and his period costumes make each cast member look like a million bucks. The choreography by Meggins Kelley is often inventive and impressive, especially in the group numbers. And the production features two memorable, powerhouse performances.
Unfortunately, those performances aren't by the leads. They're by two supporting cast members who steal the show completely. Laura Marron's Madeline True is introduced bluntly as "The Lesbian," and Marron owns it, maximizing every line and interaction in what is ultimately a tertiary role at best. She is brassy, bold, and charmingly desperate, as evidenced in her big solo number, "An Old-Fashioned Love Story." The delivery was so good, and Marron so utterly committed to it, I couldn't help but whoop audibly in approval. I never whoop.
The other revelation came in the form of Kate, a cougar on the prowl brought to life by Kristin Hopwood. Almost as soon as Hopwood entered the stage, the show rose to another level. She is magnetic - whether sashaying across the stage, purring her come-ons, or hissing her barbs, and never once wavered from her role as a sexually voracious bitch goddess. (Alexis Carrington, eat your heart out.) After she belted out her solo number at the beginning of the second act, I had only two questions: why isn't this woman a star? And, why isn't she the star of this show?
That's bad news for Marlo DiCrasto, ostensibly the lead in the role of Queenie. DiCrasto is a fine actress and an even better singer, but from the second she pulled back the curtain at the start of the show, she seemed uneasy in the role of a sexually liberated, emotionally complicated young woman. DiCrasto nailed every line and emoted competently, but there was never a moment where she ever seemed truly comfortable on the stage; the only way to describe her performance on opening night is self-conscious. And she needn't be - she's a beautiful woman with a great body and an even better voice. Physical timidity wouldn't be an issue in practically any other play, but it's so essential to Queenie's character that she be an irresistible sexual creature, that her hesitance made it difficult to ever fully embrace her character, or its role in the show.
As for the lead actors, Danny Hoskins brings a wild-eyed craziness to Burrs, and manages to make a mentally unstable physical abuser somewhat sympathetic in his big number, "Let Me Drown." He does his best navigating the totally over-the-top climax of the play. As Queenie's other suitor, Mr. Black, J. Simmons is cool, collected, and the epitome of smooth. He's a good counterpoint to Hoskins, and his scenes bring out the best in DiCrasto.
The other criticism - and this is a fault of the script, not of the staging - is that I wish more of the party guests were more involved in the action. There are literally 20 characters in this show, most of who are never introduced, and the few that are, get mostly ignored. (What was the point of introducing the one girl as "The Whore" if nothing is ever, ever done with it?) Granted, a chorus is rarely fleshed out - that's the point of a chorus - but I can't think of another play in which one hangs out in the back of the stage while the action takes place in front of it.
The Wild Party
Through May 17
28 Lawn Street | 454-1260, blackfriars.org