'Wild,' Roaring Good Time
at SJ Stage
The San Jose Stage Company's newest production, The Wild Party, is a musical quite unlike anything you've ever seen, unless you're a regular at old-timey burlesque parlors.
As the curtain goes up, soft, breezy jazz trickles in through the house speakers—setting the mood for the rest of this historically controversial story. The stage is nearly circular, a round opening of black and white marble floors in front of a bed, a bar and a bathtub.
This musical adaptation by composer Andrew Lippa is based on Joseph Moncure March's famously transgressive 1928 poem of the same name. Originally banned upon its publication, March's poem gives The Wild Party's musical adaptation its gritty, gin-soaked roots. It is said that the piece inspired William Burroughs (of Naked Lunch fame) to write.
The show opens on Queenie (played by Allison F. Rich), a young and sultry girl who laments finding a man who can fulfill her desires. Enter Burrs (Noel Anthony), a brutish vaudeville clown (complete with the red nose) whose sexual appetite is equally insatiable.
At first they seem like the perfect match—yet Burrs soon reveals his true, and violent, nature. Seeing no escape, Queenie throws a party as a last resort. But as soon as the festivities commence, Burrs is already openly flirting with another woman, leaving Queenie even more ashamed.
With the arrival of her old friend Kate (played by Courtney Hatcher) and her handsome date Mr. Black (Carmichael Blankenship), Queenie conspires to steal her friend's man in an attempt to get back at Burrs. Little does she know that Kate has similar designs. From there, the party rages on, attractions flare and the carefree hedonism turns into something much more sinister. Like all good stories set in the Roaring '20s, The Wild Party ends with a murder, and in this case it's especially satisfying.
The musical's overall vibe might be described as a punchy blend of The Music Man and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with some extra strip show raunch thrown in for good measure. The tunes are arguably a supporting character in this multifaceted romp. Jazz, swing, two-step, big band, ragtime, blues, scat—take your pick. At least three separate genres appear together in each medley-like song.
And though most of the songs are almost encyclopedic in their scope, they are organized radically—with multi-part harmonies eclipsing thick electric guitar riffs and interesting vocal experimentation. There isn't much spoken dialogue here, leaving the songs to cover much of the plot points, particularly when introducing characters and their motives. And the songs don't just play story catch-up, some almost blow the house out before falling on a pin drop. It's a sign of an impressively tight organization and direction on all fronts.
Equally impressive is how the main characters seem to dissolve back into the fold of the ensemble and then jump out again with fluidity—and how each of the different singing styles and tones match the characters' respective personalities. Carmichael Blankenship as Mr. Black has possibly the most unique voice relative to the more bohemian, ragtime-y styles affected by a majority of the cast. It's deep and rich, and serves as an effective symbolic counterpoint to the understated but conniving Burrs.
Meanwhile, Noel Anthony as Burrs is creepy, demanding, yet understated in all his aggressive scheming—with eerily lucid vocals to match. Allison F. Rich really shines as the seductive but equally unnerving Queenie. She's brassy and ferocious with a voice to match. There is considerable difficulty in her vocal performance, especially in the varied vocal styles—often occurring in the same song—yet she never falters. Other notable performances include Theresa Anne Swain as the sardonic, one-line dropping lesbian friend, Dolores, and Mike Birr as the wolfish but hilarious Eddie.
If easily offended, The Wild Party might just leave you scandalized. It's loud, unabashed and crass—almost bordering on the obscene. And that's just the dialogue. Otherwise, it's hard not to at least blush, if not be titillated by the innuendo-rich performances and compelling plot.
San Jose Stage Company's rendition of The Wild Party has a refreshingly modern feel without losing the decadence of the Roaring '20s. It is brash, frenetic, and downright hilarious.
The Wild Party
Thru Jul 17, Various Times, $45-$60
San Jose Stage Company