The Wild Party
By Michael John LaChuisa (music, lyrics, book)
Didier’s fast-paced party will leave you exhilarated, exhausted
|Bailiwick Chicago presents|
|The Wild Party|
Review by Oliver Sava
A great party should leave you feeling exhilarated, excited, and more than a little exhausted, and Bailiwick’s revival of Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party certainly succeeds in all three aspects. Based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 poem, LaChiusa’s 2000 musical adaptation—one of two different musical adaptations of the poem that year—receives a fast-paced, energetic staging in the hands of director and choreographer Brenda Didier, who creates a lively, lecherous environment that grows darker as the night continues.
Lovers Queenie (Danni Smith) and Burrs (Matthew Keffer) are a dancer and clown on the vaudeville circuit, unhappy with their romance and their careers and hungry for a thrill. Queenie suggests a party to spice up their lives, lighting a spark that will ultimately burn their relationship to ashes over the course of one passion-fueled evening. They invite a parade of over-the-top characters to turn their apartment into a den of sex, drugs, and jazz, and as the partygoers give in to their impulses, the celebration becomes more violent and frightening.
That tonal shift is evocatively realized in Brian Hoehne’s lighting, which begins with optimistic brightness before moving into muddier shades that emphasize the dirtiness of the environment and the descent of the characters into their primal selves. That gradual muddying also happens to the performances, with the ensemble becoming appropriately sloppy as the characters become inebriated. This quality is largely reflected in the physicality of the cast, because there’s no room for sloppiness when it comes to performing LaChiusa’s precisely structured music.
There’s little dialogue in The Wild Party, and the steady flow of music keeps things moving very quickly over the production’s one hour and 45 minute runtime. Didier assembles a strong ensemble that exhibits firm control over the complex melodies, but there could be more articulation at points to make sure the narrative material of the music reads as strongly as the more visceral, emotional elements.
The ensemble works well together, but some of the supporting characters are better realized than others. Danielle Brothers is magnetic as an aging burlesque dancer trying to claw her way back on stage; Christina Hall and Sasha Smith bring immense depth to the strange relationship between a lesbian stripper and the woman she picks up off the street; Ryan Lanning’s Jackie is a whirlwind of sexual energy hiding behind an unassuming, debonair façade; and Jason Grimm and Jason Richards are comic highlights as two Jewish producers that somehow find themselves in the middle of all this chaos.
Danni Smith‘s effervescent performance as Queenie is even more striking after seeing the actress in Passion earlier this year, where she gave a Jeff award-winning turn as the sullen, withdrawn Fosca. The brazen Queenie is the polar opposite of Fosca, giving Smith the opportunity to showcase her keen ability to completely transform into whatever character she’s given. From her vocal quality to her body language and facial expressions, Smith is one of the great chameleons of the current non-equity musical theater scene, and she’s had an exceptional year with two meaty roles that have pushed her to new heights.
Keffer is a formidable opponent for Smith, and Burrs and Queenie’s complicated dynamic immediately comes across in their resentful, yet sexually charged interactions. The passion that keeps them together is also the passion that will pull them apart, and Keffer creates a manic, rageful character that is a powder keg waiting to explode. Burrs’ work as a clown shines through in Keffer’s highly physical performance and Didier’s whimsical choreography, creating a contrast between the light-hearted persona Burrs wears on stage and the angry, jealous person he is in real life.
The overwhelming power of Queenie and Burrs’ performances demands equally impactful characterizations for Kate (Sharriese Hamilton), Queenie’s rival/best friend, and Black (Patrick Falcon), the latest man to fall under Queenie’s spell. Unfortunately, in a party full of big, bold figures, Hamilton and Falcon don’t make a huge impression, drifting into the background when they should be playing more prominent roles. The vocals are on point for both Hamilton and Falcon, but their performances lack the raw emotion that pervades the rest of the party.
The Wild Party continues through November 1st at Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $40, and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or online through VictoryGardens.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at BailiwickChicago.com. (Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. Recommended for ages 17 and over.)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Danni Smith* (Queenie), Matthew Keffer (Burrs), Danielle Brothers (Delores), Molly Coleman (Nadine), Gilbert Domally (Phil), Patrick Falcon (Black) Desmond Grey (Oscar), Jason Grimm (Goldberg), Christina Hall (Madeline), Sharriese Hamilton* (Kate), Ryan Lanning* (Jackie), Steven Perkins* (Eddie), Khaki Pixley (Mae), Jason Richards (Gold), Sasha Smith (Sally).
behind the scenes
Brenda Didier (director, choreography), Aaron Benham* (music director), Megan Truscott* (scenic design), Theresa Ham (costume design), Brian Hoehne (lighting design), Patrick Bley (sound design), Cameron Turner (assistant choreographer), Wil Deleguardia (technical director), Geoff Bleeker* (assistant director, dramaturg), Mallory Bass (stage manager), Lisa Griebel (props master), Abigail Medrano (asst. stage manager), Lili-Anne Brown (artistic director), Kate Garassino (executive director, producer), Michael Brosilow (photos)
* denotes Bailiwick Chicago company members/associate artists/residents.