The Wild Party, Moonbox Productions, Boston Center for the Arts, Ended May 1.
By Jules Becker
The 1926 poem “The Wild Party” took two years to find a publisher and initially ended up banned in Boston. An unsparing look at show business people addicted to drugs and a wide cross section of sexualities, Joseph Moncure March’s full-length narrative work included then taboo characters – an interracial couple, a gay pair/brother act, a lesbian couple including a morphine-addicted partner and a self-described “ambisextrous” young man. Two modern-day composers no-less – Andrew Lippa Off–Broadwasy and John Lachiusa on Broadway – ironically took on the poem’s challenges in the very same year (2000) in shows of the same name.
Lachiusa’s, which this critic saw on Broadway, possesses a score more strongly connected to the 1920’s and the poem’s very dark tone. Now Rachel Bertone, a director-choreographer who especially demonstrated her gifts with all kinds of musical material in Moonbox Productions’ recent “The Musical of Musicals,” has powerfully tapped into the show’s jazzy ambience in the company’s beautifully unrestrained revival of “The Wild Party” at the Calderwood Pavilion.
As in the often grim poem, fellow New York vaudeville performers Queenie and Burrs are a couple on an emotional collision course with the latter’s hot temper a potentially lethal power keg. Will the title party succeed in calming Burrs? Initially the very different hosts seem to reach a measure of détente. Part of that calm stems from Burrs’ optimism about going uptown with Broadway wannabe Jewish producers Gold and Goldberg. The Al Jolson-like minstrel show performer means to have Queenie flirt so persuasively with the producer pair that they commit themselves to a contract with Burrs. Fading but survival-bent performer Dolores eventually diverts the producers to her own bed.
When Queenie’s friend Kate appears at the party with her charming boyfriend Black, the proverbial best-laid plans take an even more fateful turn. Ultimately the character-like party – fired up by Prohibition-defying bathtub gin on the one hand and cocaine and morphine on the other – becomes a real barometer of Queenie and Burrs’ scary moment of truth. The redeeming part of that moment is Queenie’s dawning realization that she has been masking her inner desire for self-validation with a mask of hedonism and irresponsibility. Her closing removal of makeup metaphorically signals her emotional growth.
With a sterling ensemble, director Bertone perfectly captures the sexual abandon that takes over for much of the title party. Katie Anne Clark finds all of Queenie’s early recklessness, her tenderness with Black and her emerging humanity. Todd Yard richly menaces as controlling Burrs and sings with a tremulous high register that favorably calls to mind Mandy Patinkin’s renditions in the Broadway original. Cristhian Mancinas Garcia has the right charm and charisma as Black and joins Clark’s fairly spellbound Queenie for a striking romantic duet. Carla Martinez nicely balances Kate’s camaraderie with Queenie and her rising impatience with Black’s easy infidelity.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Shana Dirik has all of Dolores’s Cassandra-like warnings with Queenie and her seductive playfulness with Gold and Goldberg. Her wisdom-rich solo in the later going has the kind of survivalist sensibility Sondheim brought to the anthem-like “I’m Still Here” in “Follies.” Richard D. Holguin brings a convincingly cavalier approach to party-going Jackie’s manipulation of under-age Nadine one moment and relative innocent Goldberg at another. Meredith Gosselin has lesbian Madelaine True’s combination of sophistication and cynicism, while Janelle Yull smartly underplays her morphine-addicted companion Sally’s lethargy.
Steven Martin captures boxer Eddie Mackerel’s Golden Boy passion as well as his deep caring for his devoted wife Mae, played with deep conviction by Allison Russell. Ray O’Hare and Michael Herschberg respectively as Gold and Goldberg articulate the assimilating producers’ ongoing identity crisis as Jews – most notably in the characters’ telling cluelessness after finding themselves with Dolores but without pants. Dan Rodriguez sharply conducts Lachiusa’s evocative score – particularly its blues and jazz components.
Some detractors have considered March’s poem a coldly brilliant classic and Lachiusa’s musical adaptation equally unsympathetic. Differing views of Queenie’s emotional journey and March’s satiric insights notwithstanding, Bertone and Moonbox Productions make “The Wild Party” a theatrical celebration not to be missed.