6/16/2022 THE WILD PARTY Jennie T. Anderson Theatre Concert Series
TOXIC RELATIONSHIP SYNDROME
Let me get a few biases out of the way. I am a HUGE fan of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, as I am of the Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series. I was therefore anticipating this streaming production with the sort of joy reserved for children in the week before Christmas. I was also really impressed with OnStage Atlanta’s 2009 production of this piece, a production that was my first exposure to the talents of Mary Nye Bennett and Leslie Bellair. So, now that I’m through with my hem-and-haw delaying paragraph, let me copy-and-paste from the template parts of my 2009 column.
To begin, I must comment on the history of The Wild Party, a saga as intriguing as the story itself. Originally written as a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, it didn’t find a publisher until 1928. It has often been described as a thinly-fictionalized account of the party that ended Fatty Arbuckle’s career, despite the fact that, even with all the decadence on view, there is no overweight movie star and no rape, and it takes place on the opposite side of the country – apparently shallow analysis is not just a contemporary phenomenon. A 1975 movie tried to add details from the Fatty Arbuckle story, but left in March’s rhymed verse, and the result was (to put it mildly) pretentious and dull. Then in 2000, two separate musical versions appeared in New York, one on Broadway with music by Michael John LaChiusa, and one off-Broadway, with music by Andrew Lippa. It is the Lippa version we’re discussing here.
For the record, this production is nicely taped and edited, is highlighted by the sorts of talent I’ve come to expect from Jono Davis ** (especially creative decisions to keep within the limited framework of a concert format) and is filled to the eye-teeth with some of the most talented and powerhouse actor-singers in Atlanta. It is a true joy to watch and is a perfect escape from the sweltering climate-change party occurring outside our AC-protected safe spaces.
For the uninitiated, the story concerns vaudevillians Queenie and Burrs, a couple for three years, now bored with each other. A descending spiral of physical and emotional cruelties lead them to throw a party, a public spectacle for them to play out their games of jealousy and humiliation, washed with an unhealthy dose of 1920’s drug-and-sex-laced decadence (you WILL need a cold shower after seeing this stream). Their games take an unexpected turn when former hooker Kate brings along the unassuming Mr. Black, a kind man who sees through Queenie’s games and responds to the “virginal soul” within. Queenie finds herself attracted to him in ways that are almost healthy, that could provide a lifeline from the “Toxic Relationship Syndrome” she shares with Burrs. It all leads to an incredibly tense and violent finale.
This is what appeals to me about this story – Mr. Black’s attraction-at-first-sight wakens in Queenie a sense of her own self-destruction, a sense that she finally recognizes her own addiction to edge-of-danger excitement and violent passion, a sense that there is a part of her that is still human, that is, ironically, in some ways, virginal. Sex to her has always been a game, a risk, an entertainment, a needle to the soul – for the first time, she recognizes that it may also be a lifeline, that, when coupled with actual respect and affection, can provide even more excitement than the drug-and-danger variety she has always known. Maybe my own romantic nature is reading too much into this, that Queenie is, at heart, a thoroughly despicable character who deserves no less than she gets. But, in Galen Crawley’s talented hands, I did feel sympathy for her, and, by the end of the show, I began to like and feel sorry for her.
Mr. Lippa underscores this theme by the song “Two of Kind,” sung by the pugilist Eddie and his diminutive Mae – these are two characters who love and accept each unconditionally, and this song provides a nice counterpoint to the cruel sorts of relationships we see in the others. We also see other characters pair up and bond, other characters whose cruelties are a pale imitation of their hosts’. And, by ending Act One with the duet of Queenie’s “Maybe I Like it This Way” and Burrs’ “What is it About Her,” he shows us that these two characters do have a need for each other (toxic as it may be), and the moment is truly sublime.
Other moments in this play that always work for me are the big dance numbers, “Juggernaut,” “Let me Drown,” and “Wild Party.” Unfortunately, the smaller-scale, more wistful “Jackie’s Last Dance” in which an androgynous and mute dancer covers the entire set in an athletic and erotic expression of love and desire, all while (almost) everyone else sleeps in drunken exhaustion, has been cut, as has the character of Jackie. I admittedly miss it, but the cut was probably a correct choice – can there really be a role in a concert stream for a mute character who only dances? Fortunately, the music of the number was used over the end titles, so it wasn’t totally forgotten.
In addition to Ms. Crawley, I have to sing the praises of Maxim Gukhman’s Burrs, India Tyree’s Kate, and Russell Alexander’s Mr. Black, all of whom make the most of their disparate characters, all of whom interact with a gelling ensemble skill that ties party together. They are, indeed, the life of this party. Familiar faces in supporting roles (Marcie Millard, Meg Johns, Trevor Rayshay Petty, Jaymiria Etienne, Golbanoo Setayesh. Ford Beshirs, and Jacob Ryan Smith, and Jarius Cliett) collectively make for a singularly well-peopled entertainment. And, continuing a motif begun with The Last Five Years earlier this year, Music Director Holt McCarley joins the cast as composer Phil, leading the talented orchestra from on set and in character. Kudos also to choreographer Atarius Armstrong for keeping the dance numbers simple and effective.
This is a difficult and challenging play, one that should only be attempted by the bravest of souls. It depicts the depths to which lack-of-love toxicity can send the human spirit. But, at heart, it has a glimmer of optimism, in that it shows us (and Queenie), that what happens at the Wild Party, doesn’t necessarily have to stay at the Wild Party. So, let’s Raise the Roof!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol,com #JTAndersonTheatre #WildParty)
** Mr. Davis is joined by Clifton Guterman in the directors' chair for this production.