A funny thing happened in the New York theater scene in 1999: two new musicals, with the same name and based on the same source material, debuted in the same year: The Wild Party. One was on Broadway by Michael John LaChiusa and the other off-Broadway by Andrew Lippa.
Despite their starry casts (Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt in LaChiusa’s show; and Idina Menzel and Taye Diggs fresh from their triumphs in Rent in Lippa’s downtown musical), neither show was a success. Lippa’s off-Broadway production closed after just 54 performances; LaChiusa’s lasted slightly longer at 68 curtains.
Despite these twin disappointments, neither production can be labeled as simply a flop. As so often happens in theater, both shows have their passionate defenders. And, since their initial runs in New York, both shows have mounted critically acclaimed revivals—most notably Encore’s 2015 limited run of LaChiusa’s work, starring Sutton Foster and Steve Pasquale.
Over the years, I have seen productions of each show, both here and in New York.
One in particular stands out: maybe 20 years ago, long before I ever thought about writing theater reviews, I had the privilege of watching one of the glories of Chicago theater: a small storefront company full of actors fresh-out-of-school somehow capturing lightening on a small black box stage. What happened that night is indelible in my mind: young, passionate actors, an utter bare-bones stage, a small group of impassioned live musicians, and—either by fluke or serendipity—no air-conditioning so that as the cast sang about escaping a hot night in a big city we knew what they meant.
The show was LaChiusa’s and I quickly became a fan.
Last Monday night, the Blank Theatre Company—another favorite of mine—attempted something similar with Andrew Lippa’s version of the show. To my mind, LaChiusa’s has always been the better of the two competing versions, but I was looking forward to seeing how Blank’s small creative team would mount their version—and if would it repeat the same electricity I experienced two decades ago.
I am sorry to say that I was disappointed. The Roaring Twenties milieu has inspired great art, both Cabaret and Chicago—to name two famous examples—are among the finest musical ever written. But this production, directed by Jason A. Fleece, did not reach those heights.
Some of the problems are structural: the show’s main love-triangle (really a trapezoid) is nothing new: Queenie (vaudeville dancer, played by Karilyn Veres) wants affection from abusive boyfriend and professional comic Burrs (Dustin Rothbart); Burrs wants a handy punching bag for his anger and sense of failure—and Queenie can’t quite leave him.
So—instead of running to the nearest marriage counselor, they decide to do the most self-destructive thing they can do and throw a big, crazy party full of bathtub gin, loud jazz and a group of ’20s era artists straight out of central casting.
The point of the party? For Queenie and Burrs to show each other just how miserable they are. Sounds like fun!
I won’t go into the details of the plot—which is threadbare. Suffice it to say that one of the characters owns a gun and another character gets shot in the second act … just like Chekhov suggested.
I do want to object to some rather vulgar choices in the production— in particular Burrs’ opening number in which he sits at the breakfast table in his boxer shorts, with his fist stuffed down his underwear furiously jacking away while he sings about the crime and suicide he reads in the morning paper. See … he’s a violent guy. Get it?
There are moments like this throughout the show: the lesbian character is predatory and pursues an underage girl. The gay couple (one quiet, the other preposterously flamboyant) are comic characters because they are gay—not because of anything else they do. And Queenie’s erstwhile savior, “Mr. Black,” is yet another instance of what Spike Lee memorably called “the Magic Negro”—a Black person who exists simply to solve white people’s problems.
Look—the costumes are lovely. The dancing a miracle—given the minuscule size of the stage. Some of the singing is top notch. (LJ Bulien and Marc Prince have beautiful voices, put to effective use).
But, in general, no one is doing their best work in this production. And that’s a pity—because anyone who saw Blank Theatre’s production of She Loves Me this spring will remember just how flawless that show was.
I remain a supporter of the Blank Theatre and their mission to bring less frequently performed musicals to town. But, for now, I can only say, “better luck next time.”
The Wild Party by Blank Theatre Company continues until September 25 at the Reginald Vaughn Theater (1106 W. Thorndale). Tickets are $20 – $30.
For more information on this and other productions, see https://www.theatreinchicago.com/.
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