The Wild Party - Speakeasy Theatre in Boston - Saturday, February 9, 2002

I think, in a way, seeing the first non-Broadway production of The Wild Party was both good and bad for me. On one hand, there is now little doubt in my mind that the show itself is tremendously strong and will do perfectly well outside of its original, brilliant mounting on Broadway at the Virginia Theatre. Since the Broadway production had such a profound impact on my life (in countless ways), this is a very positive thing for me. But, on the other hand, the Speakeasy production, while good overall, can do nothing to erase my memories of the original production, and doesn't do much more than hint at the greatness this show is capable of achieving.

A bit of background, in case you're not familiar with the story, may be helpful. The Wild Party is based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, originally published in 1928. It tells the story of the violent relationship between the blonde vaudeville chorine Queenie and the clownish Burrs and what happens when they decide to throw a party for their friends. The story was so enticing to the newer generation of musical theatre writers that there were two entirely different adaptations of the poem in the year 2000: One Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club, written by Andrew Lippa and directed by Gabriel Barre, and one on Broadway at the Virginia Theatre with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and a book by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe (who also directed). Lippa's version originally planned a Broadway transfer, but plans for that shuttered quickly, while LaChisua's show, nominated for seven Tonys, won none, and closed the second week of June after 68 performances.

Obviously, if there are two different versions, they must each have their adherents, right?

Let's just not go there. Instead, let's say that seeing LaChiusa's version was one of the most profound theatrical experiences of my life, and that I was not able to see Lippa's version onstage. You can't judge much from recordings, of course, but if you could... well... let's just say I'm firmly in LaChiusa's camp.

Anyway, now to deal with this production. First, the good stuff:

What didn't work? I have lots of answers to this question, but I think the best place to start would be with the director and the musical director.

The musical director, Paul S. Katz, as mentioned, did a superb job with the band. I'm not sure his work with the actors was as strong. I first realized there was trouble during Jackie's explanation of his "conneissuer du leisure" lifestyle, the upbeat "Breezin' Through Another Day." Kent French almost every note perfectly. And didn't move much. And it couldn't be more wrong for the character. In the original production, Marc Kudisch danced and bounded all over the stage, and while I would never suggest that it could never be done any other way, to have such a controlled, almost uptight Jackie introduce himself to Nadine in that way not only isn't consistent with Jackie's character throughout the show, but spoils his... uh... relationship with Nadine later? "Breezin' Through Another Day" has to be a celebration of life; this was not.

But this problem itself was repeated time and again throughout the performance. Some examples:

But these songs, and others, never moved... They just stood there, at tempos too slow to push things ahead, hoping the material itself will carry the day. As good as the music is, no show is capable of surviving poor musical direction, whether it's Richard Rodgers or Frank Wildhorn. Katz seemed so enamored of the music (rightfully so) that he forgot, in the theater, it's first and foremost important to communicate the story and the characters.

And, in that department, this production was too frequently deficient. That I blame on the show's director, Andrew Volkoff, who, like Katz, spoiled moments that I didn't think could be spoiled. It was as if there were some things Volkoff just didn't get, or wasn't sure what to do with them. It was as though he and Katz had never sat down, looked at the score, and seen how all the pieces fit together. In this production, they really didn't fit together at all. It was frequently song, stop, song, stop, song, stop, song, stop... you get the idea.

That's deadly for any show, of course, but this one in particular suffers from the breaks in the party dynamic. The show, as it appeared on Broadway, had practically continuous music from the first triumphant horn blare until the climactic scene immediately preceding "More." Pauses for applause, yes, and a slowdown in the pace during Queenie and Burrs's vaudeville fight, but continuous music otherwise. There were pauses and breaks all over the place here, so you never got a sense of the party continuing on while these events and characters popped out from inside, only to return again right afterward.

Whether this was Volkoff's idea or he and Katz didn't understand what was possible is irrelevant--it didn't work, and it added somewhere around ten minutes to the running time. The show on Broadway was one of the tightest musicals I've ever seen, this production looked as if it were wading through a foot deep pond the entire time. Everything was too slow and patchy, there was no way for the show to build to its startling, dramatic conclusion. Though the way it was staged, the party never spun out of control here (the Jackie/Nadine scene was followed by a long pause during which Mae and Eddie figured out what was going on; again, no continuous action), but it couldn't have anyway, as, many times, it felt like the party never got going to start with.

There's one exception, and one exception only: The enormous group explosion "Wild," following Burrs breaking out the gin, saw the pace increase, saw the tension shoot through the roof, and saw all of the actors giving mind-blowing, powerful, and stunning performances. That sequence, in all seriousness, approached extremely closely the show's brilliance on Broadway. It was spine-tingling, compelling, captivating, and breathtakingly brilliant. I had to lean back in my seat and let it all wash over me. Heaven, perfect, exactly what I wanted to feel at this show again.

It is just such a shame that it didn't happen before or after.

This production of The Wild Party was, I feel, one of lost opportunities. The previous breaks in the action aside, little things like doing a full blackout after "Queenie Was a Blonde" (killing the action practically before it starts), or having Queenie enter the party on a giant moon (why?), make you wonder what the director was thinking. Then something like "Wild" comes along, and it seems like he got that all along... Why not the rest of it?

It's unreasonable to expect any production of any show to ever be like the original, and it should never be considered. Maureen Keillor, as Delores in this production, could never measure up to Eartha Kitt--no one can. Merle Perkins wasn't Tonya Pinkins, but how many people are? I don't hold it against these performers that they aren't the originals, but when Kate doesn't have enough breath for "Black is a Moocher", a searing blues number, and Delores doesn't radiate authority or age at all (star quality you can't teach, other things you can), or when Gold and Goldberg give such flawless musical comedy singing/dancing performances that they make many other people onstage look dull by comparison, there are problems at a more basic level than cannot probably be easily fixed. Someone involved with this production didn't look closely enough, and didn't find out exactly what was needed to bring this story and these people alive. It's a tough job, to be sure, but Speakeasy could have done better. I wish they would have.

Of course, they also could have done worse. A lot worse. This a good production. Not great, but good. That they were willing to attempt it at all speaks highly of them, that they were able to find able performers for some of the most important roles is something else to notice, and that they were able to breathlessly recapture one perfect moment from the Broadway production (though the staging was hardly the same) shows that this show wasn't a bad idea for them at all. It just didn't get all the way there, and that's understandable and to be expected.

But if you missed the Broadway production, you should go out of your way to see this. If you don't know the show at all (and, sorry, but if you just have the recording, you don't know the show at all), you should make it a priority as well. This show may be "good, but not great" but it's still stronger, more entertaining, and more watchable than lots of things out there. You owe it to yourself to visit The Wild Party.

Return to the Theatre Reviews page.
Return to the Theatre page.
Return to the top page.