The Wild Party at Bailiwick Chicago. Theatre Review – An Outstanding Party

 

Bailiwick Chicago’s excellent production of Michael John LaChiusa’sThe Wild Party is a gutsy, raunchy, daring, smartly directed, gorgeously sung, and wonderfully acted production. It is without a doubt one of the best shows this impressive company has done in a while. But it’s also an exhausting night of theatre. The manic pace of its jazzy fragmented score, its vaudevillian sketches, its complex themes, its evocation of 1920s decadence, its racial tones, its hefty poetic lyrics, the constant parade of big personalities, the magnificent acting, the… well you get the idea. There are so many overwhelming things smashing together here that it indeed has the feel of a “wild party”. And though the story is somewhat of a mess in certain places, overall it’s still a rewarding party, and one that you won’t want to miss.

 

(left to right) Danni Smith and Patrick Falcon in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of THE WILD PARTY

 

The basis for the Prohibition-era decadence here is Joseph Moncure Marsh’s now infamous 1928 poetic novel (which itself is loosely based on a true story). After a hangover-induced battle, sexually ambitious chorus girl Queenie (Danni Smith) and her downward-spiraling abusive vaudeville lover Burrs (Matthew Keffer) decide to throw a party in a desperate attempt to patch their floundering relationship and to get even with each other. The party is full of hedonistic excess and includes a long list of washed-up, Jazz Aged, B-List, New Yorkers who are living their lives through put-on personas. During the party Burrs’ psychotic jealousy comes to a rage when he finds out that Queenie is falling for an attractive younger man named Black (Patrick Falcon) which leads the show to a tragic conclusion.

 

Set in the waning days of vaudeville, The Wild Party is itself a series of vaudeville turns that span a variety of genres and styles. It starts off stylistically as an actual 1920s vaudeville performance, complete with flappers and a creepy blackface routine, before slowly morphing into areas of clashing vaudevillian melodrama and comedy during the party, and then finally in the last moments it almost ends in realism. This change mirrors the same changes that these characters go through in the course of the show, particularly Queenie and her growing self-awareness. The switches also correspond with the decline of vaudeville as an art form as well as the rapid decline of the 1920s in general which soon gave way to a lingering and painful Depression. These changes in styles and tones are also heard in the music throughout the show - going from big brassy lively sounds to darker atonal dissonance as the show progresses.

 

There are some very intimate gentle scenes here (particularly between Queenie and Black) that are intermingled with comic moments which are then intertwined again with moments of terrible violence. The show has the vaudeville decadent feel of Kander and Ebb's Chicago mixed with the “epic theatre” style of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, which is also mixed with the 20s party vibe and sense of isolation in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. And if that’s not enough there’s also some Shakespearean heft of passion and rage thrown in there, too.

 

(pictured) Matthew Keffer (center) and the company of Bailiwick Chicago’s production of THE WILD PARTY

 

Strangely this overwhelming mixture works because in a way that’s exactly what this story is - a smashing collision of self-interests by a group of unhappy people who are almost all pretending to be someone else. The poem has that same dangerous split which comes from several big personalities crashing into each other all at once, just like they do at most parties where drugs and alcohol are involved. That self-mocking earnest duality is prevalent all over this show. It mirrors both Queenie herself and her relationship with Burrs - a double-edge sword. In fact, this entire show is built on dualities, on fragmentation of styles and characters, and on a disconnection that reflects back on the characters and who they really are.

 

The concept of “authenticity” is the central theme that connects a lot of the disjointed stories and characters in The Wild Party. Nearly all of the characters in this show are people who “perform” throughout their daily lives. They habitually lie and put on an act to impress others and to make up for their own lack of self-worth. They are the kind of people who wear a conscious persona, who show the world a version of themselves that is not real to who they are. It’s all a façade, and a fragile one at that. They are people who perform being artsy and colorful, who perform being sophisticated or worldly, who perform being outrageous. What this show is telling us is that constant performing in life is destructive. Almost all the characters come into this party metaphorically wearing different masks, and as the tragic events unfold we see their painful recognition of having to recognize who they really are in the light of day.

 

The company of Bailiwick Chicago’s production of THE WILD PARTY

 

The cast here is extraordinary. It’s certainly the best casting job Bailiwick has ever done, if not one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen in a non-equity musical in years. The show is headed by the phenomenal effervescent and stunning actress Danni Smith who is as good as she’s ever been. Smith’s Queenie is ominously reminiscent of a distraught Marilyn Monroe just as her life was falling apart. Smith goes against what’s obvious in the text and doesn’t play up the vicious confident sexuality in her character. Instead she uses Queenie’s sexual ambition more as an emotional tool to fill a void for her own lack of self-worth.

 

There is a great deal of warmth in Smith’s Queenie and it offers us some surprising shades of vulnerability hidden underneath her layers of vanity. Early in the show Queenie sings about coming from a small town to Manhattan, and later that evening when Queenie becomes overwhelmed with emotions after a confrontation with Burrs we hear small traces of that small town girl accent reemerge through the painful breaks in her voice. They’re small reminders of the happy girl she used to be.

 

Queenie’s mentally-disturbed abusive boyfriend Burrs is the lightening rod that keeps connecting the couple’s all-night party to the demonic dangers beneath the surface. He is indeed the toughest role in the show and Matthew Keffer is infusing him with great a sense of jaded bitterness. However Keffer could still go a bit farther with Burrs’ violent streak, especially in his last big solo “How Many Women in the World?” which seemed way too contained for a crazed vaudevillian blackface clown that’s about to openly commit murder.

 

This show works best if Burrs is scary enough that we genuinely fear for Queenie’s life towards the end of the show. Conversely Keffer also has the challenge of having to make Burrs likeable earlier in the show by giving him a gentler side so that we can understand why Queenie would have stayed with him for so long to begin with. Right now Keffer is in the middle of both dualities. He’s creepy, but not scary. He’s silly, but not likeable. His intentions are on the right track, though he could go further in exploring Burrs’ bi-polar extremes a bit more than he might feel comfortable. Keffer’s vocals on the other hand are great.

 

(left to right) Sharriese Hamilton and Matthew Keffer in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of THE WILD PARTY

 

Burrs’ bitter jealousy is enraged by the arrival of a handsome young man named Black whom Queenie takes an immediate liking to. And although Patrick Falcon is charming, he’s not adding much mystery or intrigue to his character. He comes off rather like a bargain-basement Valentino. Granted Black is horribly underwritten in this version, so there isn’t much great material for the actor to play around with, but Mr. Falcon could still have done more to make him not so one-dimensional. This is a play about dualities after all, where we see different sides to all the characters. What Mr. Falcon is exceeding at though is his character’s initial lustful sexual chemistry with Smith’s Queenie. The chemistry doesn’t feel forced, but feels real. In fact all of their scenes together felt raw and honest especially during their brilliant song “People Like Us”.

 

Black didn’t arrive alone to the party. He too was brought along by another woman, who also happens to be Queenie’s “frenemy”, Kate. This confrontational and instantly likeable character is given a keen edge by the alluring and fierce Sharriese Hamilton whose command of the stage is downright captivating to watch. It’s fascinating to see Kate being played by a black woman. Just the way Ms. Hamilton uses some of Kate’s lines to throw the racist blackface antics back in Burrs’ face is genius. Ms. Hamilton is all around glorious to watch on stage, her vocals are spine-tingling, and I hope to see more of this gifted actress in the future.

 

(center, left to right) Gilbert Domally, Matthew Keffer and Desmond Gray with the company of Bailiwick Chicago’s production of THE WILD PARTY

 

This is truly an ensemble show and pretty much everyone is given their chance to shine in a featured song or two. One of the biggest standouts in this amazing cast is the outstanding Sasha Smith who gave her stoned lesbian character, Sally, an impeccable comic deadness that was downright hilarious to watch. Sally briefly wakes from her stupor to sing a gorgeous Gershwin-tinged operatic song entitled “After Midnight Dies” … which I might add this brave actress did with her breasts exposed. The intended purpose for this was to symbolize the switch towards a more realistic tone, thus also “exposing” the insecurities in some of the characters a little deeper. Nudity almost never works on stage (it tends to take us out of the world of the play), but in this case it was done so tastefully with dark lighting and an artistic gentleness that it was effective. Attending to Sally through most of the night is her energetic lover, Madeline True, an “almost famous” stripper, who is played with finesse by an enjoyable Christina Hall.

 

Molly Coleman has a cloyingly sweet desperate quality to her as the 14 year old Nadine who sings about the “Lights of Broadway” between snorting bumps of cocaine with the “ambi-sextrous” Jackie played by a seedy Ryan Lanning. Lanning gives Jackie a sexual eeriness that is at first amusing, but later disturbing. The brilliant Steven Perkins plays the ex-boxing champ Eddie Mackrel who arrives with his girl Mae played by the marvelous Khaki Pixley.  Another pair to arrive is the apparently “incestuous” gay brothers Oscar and Phil D’Armano. Both are superbly played with great energy by Desmond Gray and Gilbert Domally. One of the last pair of guests to arrive consists of two bickering Jewish "producers", Gold and Goldberg, who are played to perfection by the always excellent Jason Richards and an equally skillful Jason Grimm.

 

Lastly, we have the lovely actress Danielle Brothers as the faded stage star Dolores Montoya. The role was initially a small minor character, but was vastly expanded to accommodate the late actress Eartha Kitt when the show transferred to Broadway. You can tell because the role clearly has Eartha Kitt’s stone-cold diva personality written all over it. Still, Ms. Brothers is making this role her own. She gives Dolores some terrific moments of wise sultry humor that was incredibly delightful to watch. Not to mention Ms. Brothers absolutely nailed her big solo moments, particularly her last song, “When It Ends”.

 

(left to right) Matthew Keffer and Danni Smith in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of THE WILD PARTY

 

Well over a decade ago many thespians were openly heralding the gifted composer Michael John LaChiusa as the next Stephen Sondheim…. that was until they actually saw his musicals. Mr. LaChiusa hasn’t had the best of luck both with critics and with audiences. Not one of his ten shows has become a hit, nor have any of them actually made much of a profit. All of them have flopped and many of his shows haven’t made enough money to even pay off their initial licensing advances. The Wild Party in particular only ran for seven weeks and lost its entire $5 million dollar investment.

 

It’s interesting to note that when LaChiusa’s Wild Party opened on Broadway in April 2000, there was another musical adaptation of the exact same source material, by the composer Andrew Lippa, that opened Off-Broadway just two months prior - a huge rarity that had producers worried. And while both shows were equally panned by critics and bombed, Lippa’s version is the one that has been produced the most often by theatre companies ever since (I’ve seen about 3 productions of it in the last few years in Chicago). Having now seen them both I can easily see why… or more exactly I can hear why. Lippa infused his show with contemporary music which is easier to listen to, easier to cast, easier for actors to sing, and easier for modern audiences to relate to. LaChiusa’s music, though more stylistically appropriate, is just not as easy - both to listen to and to find enough talented actors to give the songs and story justice.

 

It’s not that LaChiusa’s music is bad; it’s just off-putting to many theatregoers.  He doesn’t follow what our ears are expecting. His esoteric and complex music is full of irregular melodies, unresolved harmonies, and random pitch jumps that occasionally soar, but more often sound atonal and discordant. It’s not exactly pleasing music, nor is any of it memorable. While his songs do allow characters to express themselves in totally different ways than typical showtunes they’re also often glaringly untuneful, braying to the ear, and often needlessly long. It can be jarring at times.

 

(left to right) Danni Smith and Sharriese Hamilton in Bailiwick Chicago’s production of THE WILD PARTY

 

But at the same time, LaChiusa’s typical jagged-clashing sounds are actually perfectly suited to the jagged-clashing themes that are all over The Wild Party. It is a “wild” score that reflects the “wild party” in the show. And like most wild parties the music here is a disordered concoction that mixes in a little bit of everything. LaChiusa blends operatic arias with 1920s jive and some upbeat vaudevillian duets with dark swirling ballads. There are also strong hints of jazz throughout many of the songs. Jazz music not only is evocative of the 20s, but the music’s own jagged, jumpy, off-beat anarchy also captures LaChiusa’s usual style while simultaneously also emulating the whole colliding spirit of jaggedness in this show's textures.

 

Additionally LaChiusa amplifies the split dualities in our main characters by also giving them some songs full of the same dissonance and unfinished melodies which his work is often criticized for. It works because it shows us that these characters are so unsure of who they are that even they can’t finish their own tunes. On top of this there are some really poetic lyrics that, in typical LaChiusa fashion, don’t follow the usual rhythmical schemes we’re used to hearing (a questionable choice for a show based on a poem).

 

All this discordance smartly augments that fragmented sense of colliding personalities and disconnection which are inherent in George Wolfe’s libretto. And just like a “wild party” the songs and music almost never stop to allow book scenes to take over. It keeps going song after song, sometimes not even pausing for applause.

 

(pictured) Danni Smith (center) with the company of Bailiwick Chicago’s production of THE WILD PARTY

 

While most of this production has a lot of strengths there’s no hiding from the fact that Wolfe’s uneven book is one of its biggest weaknesses, particularly in its second half where the jaggedness is unintentional and a major flaw. The central story of sexual betrayal between Queenie, Burrs, Black, and Kate just isn’t given enough central focus for it to develop the momentum it needs (a major difference from Lippa’s version). Instead their storylines keep getting put on long vamps in the background while we get pre-occupied watching the various minor party guests sing some needlessly long and thematically repetitive self-loathing songs about how awful their lives are.

 

After a while the show starts going from being a “wild party” to a “whiny party”. These songs add to the overall themes, but they don’t do much to further the actual overall story.  On top of these distractions there’s also a superfluous near-rape subplot that comes out of nowhere and doesn’t really go anywhere. I understand that Wolfe and LaChiusa are trying to emphasize the dualities, disconnect, and façades which are prevalent in all of the characters, but that doesn’t mean that every character needs to have a big number. It almost would’ve been better if LaChiusa had given them all a big group ensemble number which would explain all of their restless bruised cynicism at once instead of one by one as it is here.

 

Taking the focus away from our main characters for such long stretches only distances ourselves even further from caring about what happens to them. By the time we get to the final climatic moments between Burrs and Black all the tension has deflated from their storyline and it just doesn’t register as dramatically or as emotionally as it deserved.

 

(left to right) Desmond Gray and Gilbert Domally with the cast of Bailiwick Chicago’s production of THE WILD PARTY

 

Despite many of those weaknesses this remarkable cast is so good that they’re able to overcome many of the material’s structural problems rather than being enveloped by them as they were in Bailiwick’s last two productions this past season. Of course it helps that this cast is aided by having Brenda Didier as its director and choreographer. This is not an easy piece to direct as there’s a whole host of characters who almost never leave the tiny stage. Still her directing is so sharp that our focus never waivers from where Didier wants it to be. The show’s stylistic changes are subtle rather than abrupt and everything flows easily from one moment to the next, it’s like we’re peering into different groups of people at the same party at just the right times.

 

And Didier’s assistance with the actor’s character development is notable. Everyone has a well-defined personality that helps us to distinguish each character. My only note is that Didier could have gone a tad farther with the hedonism in the show. The “orgy” and a lot of the other sexual moments felt a little too choreographed instead of organically steamy in places. It’s a minor adjustment though in an overall great tapestry that Didier painted for us. Lastly, Aaron Benham’s music direction is spot on. The vocals, while not always pretty, are still well sung overall. Every word can be heard crystal clear and with emotional intent. The band maintains a softer background to the evening and they never overpower the actors. Very nicely done!

 

Bottom Line: The Wild Party is highly recommended. Bailiwick should be commended for this triumphant risk-taking endeavor. It’s a splendid production of an odd and overwhelming show. There’s more here than just an evocation of 1920s glitz and disconnect. It’s a story that shines a light on us in the audience as well. The Wild Party shows us how destructive constantly having to put on an act for others can be. It treats truth and reality as lesser values and here we see a bunch of self-pitying and self-abusive people learning how to wake up to the light of day without a massive hangover so they can face reality. No party lasts forever, but with this excellent production you’ll at least be glad you attended.

 

The Wild Party – Bailiwick Chicago

Running Time: 100 minutes, No Intermission

Runs through: November 1, 2014

Curtain Times: Thursday, Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 3 PM & 8 PM, Sundays at 3 PM. There is also an added performance on Tuesday, October 28 at 7:30 PM (industry night) 

Tickets and Reservations: $40 and can be purchased online (see link above), in-person the day of the show, or by calling the Victory Gardens Box Office at (773) 871-3000

Discounted Group Tickets: $30 per ticket for groups of 10 or more. Inquire with box office for details.

 

Music & Lyrics by Michael John LaChisua, Book by Michael John LaChisua & George C. Wolfe,Directed and Choreographed by Brenda Bidier, Music Direction by Aaron Benham, Stage Management by Mallory Bass, Assistant Stage Management by Abigail Medrano, Set Design by Megan Truscott, Technical Design by Wil Deleguardia, Costume Design by Theresa Ham, Lighting Design by Brian Hoehne, Sound Design by Patrick Bley, Assistant Musical Direction by Ilana Atkins, Properties by Lisa Griebel, Assistant Choreography by Cameron Turner


Cast includes
: Danielle Brothers (Dolores Montoya), Molly Coleman (Nadine), Gilbert Domally (Phil D’Armano), Patrick Falcon (Black), Desmond Gray (Oscar D’Armano), Jason Grimm (Goldberg), Christina Hall (Miss Madelaine True), Sharriese Hamilton (Kate), Matthew Keffer (Burrs), Ryan Lanning (Jackie), Steven Perkins (Eddie Mackrel), Khaki Pixley (Mae), Jason Richards (Gold), Danni Smith (Queenie), Sasha Smith (Sally) 

Understudies: James Gavin, Amanda Horvath, Chris Jackson

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow

 

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