“The Wild Party” Has Talented Revelers, Anemic Plot

Review by SUZANNE ANGEO (member, American Theatre Critics Association)
& GREG ANGEO (Member Emeritus, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle)

If you’re ready for a crazy party, there’s one going on right now in Royal Oak. The Stagecrafters at the Baldwin Theatre are presenting an unconventional and decadent show with only one thing on its mind.

“The Wild Party” composer and lyricist Andrew Lippa grew up in Oak Park, MI and graduated from U of M. He relocated to New York City where, in 1996, he began work on the book and lyrics for “Party.” The inspiration for his risqué jazz-age musical came from a 1928 narrative poem of the same name, published by essayist Joseph Moncure March, who later became a Hollywood screenwriter during the post-silent picture era. March’s poem was promptly “banned in Boston” due to its explicit nature. And of course it became very popular for the same reason. Lippa’s musical didn’t fare nearly as well. It opened off-Broadway in 1999 and drew mixed critical and audience response, closing after less than two months. Nonetheless, it garnered a number of industry nods, and a Drama Desk Award.

The setting is Greenwich Village in the late 1920s. A lively young showbiz couple finds that life has gotten dull, and they decide to throw a party for their colorful and equally lively friends…and a few strangers. There are assorted hookers, boxers, gay boys and girls, and bathtubs onstage (for gin, what else?). Intrigue and lust bloom in the smoky surroundings like orchids in a hothouse. And, of course, music.

Randi Hamilton (“Into the Woods”) commands the stage as Queenie, a raunchy, gorgeous chorus girl. She’s got a big brassy voice, a wild blonde flapper hairdo and a shimmy-shake that sets the world aflame. Burrs, a scary, violent vaudeville clown and Queenie’s live-in lover, is ably performed by Josh Allor (“Metamorphoses”). His vocals are nothing short of superb, although he seems to struggle with some of the physical demands of the role, like dancing.

While there are shades of Bob Fosse’s “Chicago” in the song-and-dance, “Party” falls short in the story department. It’s mainly the tale of a love triangle, set to music and suspended from a flimsy plot framework. The initial jolt of the decadent and jaded opening number soon wears off. More of the same follows, scene after scene, with no real surprises left. The main reason? It’s hard to care about these people, because they don’t care about each other. They are mostly self-centered, hedonistic and shallow. There is a glimmer of hope when the character Black arrives at the party. Played with skill and sympathy by the handsome Dez Walker, Black seeks to rescue Queenie from the cruel Burrs, with tragic results. Nancy Ingles as the vivacious Kate is perfect as Queenie’s nemesis, stealing the attention, and the men (or at least trying to). And Liz Schultz as the lonesome lesbian Madelaine provides welcome comic relief and what may arguably be the best number in the show, “An Old-Fashioned Love Story.”

Director Jerry Haines provides good staging and blocking, but at times the large cast, scattered in small background groups around the stage, make pantomimed movements while a scene is being played. It might be less distracting if the groups are in frozen tableaux, so the focus can remain on the actors playing the scene.

The jazzy choreography by John Luther is first-rate, with plenty of the old bump-and-grind, and a talented cast to carry it over the top. The vocals, orchestra, costumes and lighting are all top-notch, and make up for any shortcomings elsewhere. There are showstopping numbers including “Raise the Roof” and “Let Me Drown.” All this, and the amazing ensemble cast, is more than enough reason to come to this “Wild Party.”

The Wild Party is playing now through September 30 at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $21 to $28. Baldwin Theatre is located at 415 S. Lafayette in Royal Oak. Visit stagecrafters.org for tickets and to see their upcoming season.