'The Wild Party' Is Straight Outta Brea

Gang, bang, thank you, ma'am!
Stephen Rack

At intermission, the musical The Wild Party was really growing on this reviewer—like a cancer. An hour and a half in, it felt twice as long, the performers weren't singing as much as shrieking, and Andrew Lippa's book and score seemed to possess all the depth and heart of a corpse. The singing didn't get demonstrably better in the second act, but the show's built-in tangents and plot diversions were gratefully gone and the focus directed on the plot's main thrust: a violently explosive evening at a Prohibition-era boozefest in which a couple locked in acrimonious warfare decide to do something about it . . . with horrible results.

The Wild Party is an ambitious choice for any theater company, mainly because it's just like a real wild party, in that there is a lot of really weird shit going on all the time. With 29 songs and 16 actors, there's never a moment's rest, and Lippa's score, infused with everything from gospel and vaudeville to jazz, never settles on one musical style for too long. And, just like a real wild party, the lack of focus grows taxing; everyone is screaming and reveling in drunken chaos, but no one's saying or doing anything worth observing.

This musical has an interesting lineage. It began life as a Joseph Moncure March poem written in 1922, but the racy randiness of the verse kept it hidden for six years. In 1928, The Wild Party received a limited publishing run, but the Nick Carraway-like decadence of a Prohibition party at which booze flows freely was quickly banned. Reportedly, a young man named William S. Burroughs read it in 1938, and it convinced him to become a writer. It was reissued in 1968, and in 1995, an illustrated version from the brilliant hand of Art Spiegelman was published. Five years later, Lippa turned it into a musical.


The Wild Party at Theatre Out at the Empire Theater, www.theatreout.com. Thurs.-Sat., June 30-July 2, 8 p.m. $15-$25.

Set in a Manhattan apartment at the height of Prohibition, the poem—and the musical—is anything but polite. Booze flows like a river, there's a bit of cocaine swirling about, hookers and their lesbian madams make the guest list, and there's plenty of same-sex pairings. It sounds like a night in downtown Santa Ana these days, but for the 1920s, it was the kind of soiree J.Edgar Hoover would have loved to bust up.

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The story's main plot follows Queenie (Andrea Dennison-Laufer), a vaudeville dancer, and her live-in boyfriend, Burrs (Joaquin Nuñez), a clown with a violent streak. Going on three years now, the relationship has deteriorated into boredom punctuated by the occasional verbal or physical assault. Queenie decides to throw a party in order to get Burrs drunk so he'll display his true colors to their friends. The revelers show up and proceed to get drunk, down and dirty, all the while singing, dancing and occasionally disrobing.

Things really get going with the appearance of the show's most memorable character, Kate (Katy Harvey). Juiced-up and sloppy, Kate has always had a hankering for Burrs and, sensing friction between the clown and his dancer, starts plotting a way to break up the bash.While all these characters would be great fun at a wang-dang-doodle, none is redeemable in any way, with the exception of Kate's new boy-toy, Black (Eric Ronquillo). They're not just drunks or drug addicts; they're vain, selfish, creepy and kind of gross. Again: great for a party, but a grind for a life.

Director Frankie Marrone has a great deal to keep track of in a show with so many numbers and people. But, much like the show itself, there's a wandering vagueness to his production. It never seems to establish a tempo; things just sort of lurch and jerk, making it even more difficult to keep track of Lippa's weirdly told story. The cast is energetic and game and isn't shy about displaying boobies and butts, but most seem outmatched by the material. Only Nuñez's ticking-time-bomb Burrs and Harvey's deliciously tawdry Kate really own their roles. Dennison-Laufer, given the very difficult role of Queenie, needs more of an edge. The character is the Helen of Troy of this show; it's for her hand that the violence ensues. And even though she is beaten down by her lover, she's still a star performer and would seem to be dripping with confidence, however much of a front it is. But this Queenie, sounding so breathy, comes off too mild.

And that could be a criticism of the show itself. Yes, there is nudity and violence and drunkenness. But there's a disarming lack of sexiness. It seems like The Wild Party is set up to lean toward a stylish, sensual show such as Chicago. This one just seems straight out of Brea.


This review appeared in print as "Straight Outta Brea: The Wild Party aims for Prohibition-era decadence but settles for a lack of sexiness."

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