By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Put on a show called The Wild Party and it darn well better be. Anything less is like inviting hungry friends to a smorgasbord and serving them TV dinners. For a few minutes at the beginning of The Wild Party they're throwing over at Theatre Three, there are appetizing hints that this intimate Jazz Age musical might have the makings of a delicious bacchanalian feast. The R-rated festivities flirt with nudity, drug use, adultery, an orgy--a full menu of sex and sin. But not even halfway into 130 intermissionless minutes, this Wild Party dissolves into bland, cheesy goo.
The show is based on a book-length 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March about the "gin, skin and sin'' of the Roaring '20s, an epic work of rhyming couplets critic Charles Isherwood dubbed "Dr. Seuss on the sauce.'' Reissued in book form in the 1990s with illustrations by Art Spiegelman, the poem inspired two musicals that both opened within weeks of each other in New York theaters in 2000. The one now at Theatre Three features music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and book by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe. The other Wild Party, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, will be produced by the Uptown Players at the Trinity River Arts Center later this year. (LaChiusa visits Theatre Three for a "talkback'' with cast and audience following a matinee performance on Sunday, February 15.)
LaChiusa's Partyoffers a pastiche of characters, themes and situations done before and better in other musicals spotlighting the demimonde. The central figures in The Wild Partyare Queenie, a fading vaudeville beauty (played by Stephanie Riggs), and her live-in boyfriend Burrs (Sonny Franks), a Jolson-esque singer-comic who works in blackface. With their relationship as tattered as Queenie's flapper dress, the couple decide to distract themselves by throwing a boozy all-night bash for their showbiz pals.
Into Queenie and Burrs' run-down flat parades a colorful array of swells and ne'er-do-wells, including a big lesbian named Miss Madalaine True (Melissa Renuka Kamath) and her pickup, Sally (Kylah Magee); a couple of gay songwriters (John Garcia, Sergio Antonio Garcia) who bill themselves as the D'Armano brothers but actually are lovers; a coke-snorting bisexual named Jackie (Ric Leal); two Jewish Broadway producers known as Gold (Charles Ryan Roach) and Goldberg (Ricky Pope); a faded diva named Dolores Montoya (Janis Roeton); Queenie's glamorous friend Kate (Lisa-Gabrielle Green); and Kate's boy-toy, a slick gigolo called Black (Skie Ocasio).
From the opening song declaring, "Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still/And she danced twice a day in vaudeville,'' it's clear that LaChiusa is a sponge of a composer. That song bears strong echoes of Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark. Influences from Gypsy, Chicago, Cabaret and Threepenny Opera are evident in many of the other 30 or so numbers (too many for a show without a break and none uniquely hummable). If only The Wild Partywere half so wild and wonderful as those other musicals.
Instead, this Party, directed by Jac Alder and choreographed by Jack Degelia, tries desperately to arm-wrestle its characters and audience into having a gay old time. Despite the show's noise and boisterousness, the fun always seems just about to start yet never does. Introducing all the characters one by one takes more than an hour. There are at least half a dozen too many songs and a couple of annoying reprises. There's only the slenderest thread of a plot. Queenie and Black fall in lust. Burrs gets jealous. And as Kate predicts, "Every time we two get together, it's broken glass and dead bodies everywhere.'' The whole thing feels like the lost Dick Van Dyke Showparty episode, the one where Sally gets liquored up and hits on Millie, and Laura snogs Alan Brady out in the kitchen.
Just when The Wild Party gets everyone assembled onstage, they fall into a pile in the corner for what surely is the saddest-looking orgy ever staged. In slow motion yet. Nobody gets topless (mustn't offend Theatre Three's core geezer subscriber base), and nobody's lipstick gets smudged. Some gay guys take the shoes off some chubby women and then wriggle around on throw pillows. That's about it. Sexy as a plate of liverwurst. Look away, look away.
Real heat is supposed to be generated by the Queenie/Black liaison. While the others are fake-cavorting in the corner, they sing a couple of torchy duets and retire to Queenie's bedroom for a sex romp. But the pairing of Stephanie Riggs and Skie Ocasio doesn't click. With her knobby knees and matted platinum wig, the tiny Riggs is more ragamuffin than temptress as Queenie. Ocasio, hunk of the month in Dallas' musical theater circles (he starred in Uptown's Kiss of the Spider Woman and Plano Rep's Forever Plaid), is handsome in a headwaiter-ish way but exhibits limited range as a singer and actor. A raised eyebrow is his fallback expression for every emotion.
There is one genuine A-plus performance in The Wild Party: Sonny Franks as Burrs. Franks creates a remarkably nuanced sad-clown character--equal parts Curly Howard, Ed Wynn and Bert Lahr--watching helplessly as Queenie gets taken in by the sleek and mysterious Black. In his soft-shoe solo "Wouldn't It Be Nice?'' Burrs laments his girlfriend's tendency to stray: "Wouldn't it be good/To know/Your love had not made love/With half the neighborhood?'' It's as funny and poignant as the "Mr. Cellophane'' number sung by Roxie's sad-sack husband in Chicago.
Ric Leal has a high old time chewing up scenery as the flirtatious, "ambisextrous'' Jackie. He's fine in two solos, "Breezin' through Another Day'' and "More'' (a tribute to cocaine and excess). Marcus H. Mauldin floats like a butterfly and sings beautifully as the punch-drunk prizefighter Eddie Mackrel. Playing Eddie's ditzy wife, Mae, leggy Renee Smith might have a chance of making a better impression were she not costumed in what appears to be a turquoise-sequined 1980s J.C. Penney prom dress.
The costumes in Theatre Three productions often are--no, they always are--the weakest design element, and that's never been truer than in The Wild Party. Hampered by a skimpy budget, short production schedule or whatever the excuse, costumer Patty Korbelic Williams has failed to render anything close to 1920s fashions for any of the characters. The women's dresses look like re-altered, gussied-up matron-of-honor gowns rescued from Goodwill, all of them the wrong length, color or silhouette for the period or their wearers. Queenie's one outfit, a slinky red minidress, reads "casino cocktail waitress'' more than Jazz Age flapper and makes Riggs look even more bony and washed out.
Set designers Harland Wright and Juan DiNero have festooned the acting space with beaded curtains and paper lanterns, so many lanterns, in fact, that the view of Queenie's bedroom upstage is blocked for those sitting in seats higher up. It wouldn't matter much, except there is a brief glimpse of Ocasio in a state of full dorsal nudity toward the end of the show. Not quite enough to get this lukewarm Party started, but we'll take our thrills where we can get them.