Chicago Theatre Review
A Soiree of Drugs, Sex and Booze
The Wild Party – Bailiwick
Confirming every dark, stereotypical myth born out of Prohibition Era New York City, the Roaring Twenties must have been a den of evil depravity and unbridled sexual debauchery, fueled by bathtub gin and cocaine. Predatory men and loose women preyed off the innocent and one another at fashionable orgies that began late at night in bohemian apartments and continued into the early hours of the morning.
This image was perpetuated by Joseph Moncure March in his 1928 book-length poem, The Wild Party, that tells the story of Queenie, a Vaudevillian showgirl, who shares a violent and abusive relationship with Burrs, a downward-spiraling blackface minstrel show entertainer. After a week of performances and persecution, Queenie finally wakes up knowing that she needs to change her life. To mollify her, Burrs suggests throwing a huge party inviting everyone they know, as well as some new blood. The event becomes explosive and decadent and, not surprisingly, ends in tragedy.
In 2000, inspired by the recent rerelease of March’s book, playwright George C. Wolfe collaborated with composer Michael John LaChiusa to bring the story to life as a Broadway musical. The production, which ironically coincided with Andrew Lippa’s off-Broadway version of the same story, played for only a couple of months. Their mostly sung-through musical tale offers a score containing more than 40 songs, some loud, jazzy, danceable tunes, some sultry, moody ballads and others that are simply character driven pieces. Much like the original book, the long, one-act musical’s divided into five acts: The Vaudeville, Promenade of Guests, The Party, After Midnight Dies and the Finale. Wolfe expands March’s story to include some interesting backstories, not only for Queenie and Burrs, but for the many partakers of the party. The majority of the show takes place during the “Wild Party” and “After Midnight” portions, with a denouement occurring in the “Finale.” After the tragedy that ends the evening, the entire company returns to the Vaudeville trying to coax Queenie out of her depression. Instead, she removes her makeup and faces the morning light with new hope for the future, in the song,“This is What It Is.”
Brenda Didier has successfully performed the monumental task of both directing and choreographing this three ring circus of excessiveness. Keeping all the balls in the air and all the plates twirling, Ms. Didier continues to demonstrate why she’s the one-stop magician everyone wants to make their productions look great. The pace she sets is as fast as the characters in this musical and the look she creates for this production is unadulterated, high-class sleaze. Whether draped about in drug-induced stupors or gyrating their naughty bits all around Megan Truscott’s economical, multipurpose set, Ms. Didier’s fifteen-member cast shows they’ve got what it takes to make this story sizzle. And sizzle they do!
Danni Smith, for whom no role is apparently too challenging or difficult, convincingly brings Queenie to full, voluptuous life. Strutting her seductive stuff in “Queenie Wazza Blonde,” pumping the party into high gear with her titillating “Black Bottom” and “The Lowdown-down” or baring her soul in “What I Need” and “People Like Us,” this ever-versatile actress continues to surprise and amaze in every part she plays. She’s matched by the appropriately manic, high-octane, star-turning performance of Matthew Keffer as Burrs. His jealousy and desperation to possess Queenie and keep her his own is in every look and move. Keffer’s songs, such as “Marie is Tricky,” “Welcome to Her Party” and his lamentable “How Many Women in the World?” are performed with gusto and melancholy. These two mismatched lovers infuse Ms. Didier’s production with a musical and dramatic high that’s unparalleled.
Among the party’s guests, Ryan Lanning’s Jackie stands out as a cocaine-addicted, bisexual predator for whom life is a banquet and everyone he meets is a prospective sexual conquest. Mr. Lanning’s performances of “Breezin’ Through Another Day” and later in the show, “More,” tells the audience everything they need to know about this scumbag. He lures the gay performer Oscar, played with perfect catlike smoothness by Desmond Gray, into one sexual encounter after another. Later Jackie makes his big mistake by seducing Nadine, an innocent, starstruck teenager, played with wide-eyed frankness and enthusiasm by Molly Coleman. Phil, Oscar’s lover, who also happens to be his brother, is played exuberantly by Gilbert Domally. As a song-and-dance team, the two men wow the audience with “Uptown” and “A Little M-m-m.”
Chicago’s favorite character actress, Danielle Brothers brings a degree of high class and yesteryear glamor to Dolores, the aging actress who knows what it takes to navigate through life and make a show business comeback. Ms. Brothers sums it all up in both “Moving Uptown” and “When It Ends.” The objects of her affection at this party are Gold and Goldberg, two theatrical producers who are quite possibly scouting talent for their new uptown venture. Providing much of the musical’s humor, these two bundles of energy (“The Movin’ Uptown Blues”) are played to perfection by Jason Richards and Jason Grimm. Sharriese Hamilton as Kate, Queenie’s showbiz friend and rival, brings along Black (the handsome Patrick Falcon), her current boy toy, to provide Burrs a little competition for Queenie. She musically describes her attitude about relationships in “Love Ain’t Nothin.’”
Bailiwick has topped itself with this eye-popping, toe-tapping, heartbreaking musical that can be viewed as sheer entertainment or as a warning that excess and debauchery become their own reward. The fast living, drug and booze infused la dolce vita life style may seem titillating when seen from a distance, but LaChiusa’s musical shows all too clearly that when the lights dim and the party ends, life is truly meant to be lived filled with love. This musical is not only Bailiwick’s finest creation, but it’s easily one of the best productions playing in Chicago today.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 2-November 1 by Bailiwick Chicago at the Richard Christiansen Theater in the Victory Gardens’ Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the Victory Gardens box office, by calling 773-871-3000 or by going to www.victorygardens.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.