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Theater Review: Wild Party goes behind the Jazz Age's glitzy curtain

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On opening night, the Village Repertory Company’s production of Andrew Lippa's Wild Party is off to a great start before the lights even go down. The stage at the Woolfe Street Playhouse has been transformed into a near-perfect backdrop for the Jazz Age musical, which is set in the apartment of a 1920s showbiz couple who throw the titular party. Custom posters of the two adorn the back wall, and the furniture and props give the impression of clutter without actually getting in anyone’s way — which is important, as over the course of the two-act play a dozen characters share the stage. Between the dancing, drinking, fighting, screwing, and singing, they use every inch of it. Parents should take note that the play has mature themes, and includes a scene of sexual violence.

The plot, which swirls around the two leads as they pull and push against the bonds of a relationship that isn’t working but which neither of them can end, moves as a relatively brisk pace. The opening number introduces Burrs, a clown, and Queenie, a showgirl, and brings their story up to the play’s present. The framework is fairly conventional — once the bathtub gin starts flowing, both characters test their commitment to one another with other party guests. And the party, as one would expect, starts off as a blast. What might surprise most modern eyes, however, is that the play (which draws the majority of its dialogue and lyrics from the 1928 narrative poem Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March) deals with its characters as harshly as it does. There really are no good guys (or dolls).

Both Burrs (Ryan Ahlert) and Queenie (Emily Wilhoit) are complicated, and both have their charms. But neither is entirely sympathetic. As other characters are introduced, it’s quickly apparent that their entire crowd is populated with fast-living party people who are near or past the point where the good times have become more work than fun, but who aren’t sure what other options might be open to them. And when party girl Kate (Laura Ball) and the mysterious Mr. Black (Immanuel Houston) show up, things get exciting, but quickly start to fall apart.  

The ensemble cast is solid, with many members stepping out for a lead on a song or a quick fistfight, but the show rises and falls with the four leads. Wilhoit plays Queenie, the real star of the show, with poise and confidence. She’s at loose ends, worried her best is behind her, but keeps her chin up and does her damndest to keep the reins of her life in her own hands. When she shows vulnerability, however, the pride fades and the fear comes through.

Ahlert, as Burrs, stalks the stage with the forced levity of a clown who hasn’t been happy in a long time. Ahlert handles the inner conflict well, as his laughter and jokes are laced with violence. Ball, as Kate, is clearly having fun playing the slutty industry friend who tries to seduce Burrs almost immediately. Houston plays Mr. Black as the stranger that he is, keeping his distance from the other characters, and the audience, for most of the play. His voice is his greatest asset, as his smooth croon stands out amidst the on-key but somewhat flavorless belting by the rest of the cast.

Musical accompaniment is provided by a live five-piece band which played wonderfully, modulating the music to follow the action on the stage while providing accompaniment and color throughout. The score jumped around the whole 20th century, and the shifts were handled deftly and artfully.  

Overall, the play is certainly worth seeing. The treatment of 1920’s America is not one often seen, as the glitzy veneer of the Roaring Twenties is peeled back to show the struggles of those who worked so hard to make the stage shine. Everyone drinks too much, there’s a lot of promiscuous sex, the characters all want things they can’t have, and it ends with a gunshot. There’s plenty of period slang, the costumes are stylishly archaic, and while it’s doubtful a clown would run with the modern equivalent of this crowd, the underlying themes and conflicts could hardly be more contemporary.

High Wire Distillery is serving complimentary cocktail tastings in the lobby for all evening shows, beginning at 7pm. Continuing the Roaring Twenties theme, Prohibition is offering after-show drink specials.

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