By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Now this is a party. Uptown Players close out their third season with an orgy of writhing bods and steamy hook-ups in a production of Andrew Lippa's Jazz Age musical The Wild Party. It has it all in terms of R-rated box-office appeal: nudity, boy-boy kissing (what would this theater be without it?), girl-girl groping, fistfights, sexy dance numbers featuring dozens of cuties in their lacy scanties, several showstopping songs (including a rousing lesbian love call) and a tragic, violent ending. Like any late-night get-together hosted by an abusive vaudeville clown and his live-in whore, it's not all fun and games. This production isn't flawless. But what good party doesn't have its ups and downs?
Directed by David Fisher, this Wild Party dares to go to much wilder places than Theatre Three's Wild Party did last season. Based on the same book-length 1920s poem by Joseph Moncure March, the one Theatre Three staged was written and composed by Michael John LaChiusa. Lippa's adaptation, particularly the way Uptown Players handle it, is the more down and dirty of the two, more drenched in the divine decadence of Cabaretand Threepenny Opera. Its characters exude world-weary amorality, always ready to escape their pain by reaching for a bottle of hooch, a snort of cocaine or a hot body. The LaChiusa version actually delivers more tuneful music, but Theatre Three, with its over-age, overweight cast, wasted it by throwing a Party that sagged like an old divan and had all the sexual charge of a church rummage sale.
If there's one thing the Uptown Players do right, it's get this Party started. The show opens with all 19 cast members cavorting in their revealing underthings to Vicki Squires' Fosse-inspired, pelvis-centric choreography. With that many dancers thrusting and bouncing in sync on the little stage at the Trinity River Arts Center, the audience, sitting so close they can count the chest hairs on the boy dancers and the goose pimples on the girls, gets immediately caught up in the unbridled energy.
The story of The Wild Party is a love quadrangle. Burrs, a fading show clown (played as a bitter, pitiful loser by the marvelous James Wesley), lives with pretty dancer Queenie (Stacey Oristano). She's bored with his sad-sack demeanor and tired of getting slapped around when he's drunk. But he's obsessed with her and won't let her leave. One night in their dreary Manhattan apartment, she decides to throw an impromptu bash, partly as diversion, partly as revenge against Burrs. The place quickly fills up with their frantic, freaky friends: mannish chanteuse Madelaine True (Sara Shelby-Martin), composers Phil and Oscar (Jonathan McCurry, Clayton Shane Farris), prizefighter Eddie (Charles Ryan Roach) and his girlfriend Mae (Kristin Colaneri), and a dozen others, peering out from eye shadow thick as coal dust.
Then in walks Kate (Emily Lockhart), a coke-addicted call girl, and her escort, Black (Donald Fowler), who's supposed to be rich, 25 and devastatingly handsome. Queenie takes one look at Black and falls in lust. Kate fights back by making a play for Burrs. It all ends badly, after hours of drinking, singing, snogging and weeping. By the finale, everybody's in their panties again, but this time there's a dead body on the floor.
This is one of those high-pitched, sung-through musicals, a hybrid of traditional musical theater and opera not unlike Rent. Lippa's 27-song score is dissonant and frequently harsh on the ear, wandering musically from jazz themes to Bernstein-tinged ballads to amorphous nonsense. March's poem used syncopated rhymes, and sometimes Lippa's adaptation of poetry to lyrics is downright clunky: "Let me drown in females foreign/Let me dangle from a limb/Teach me how to put my oar in/But don't you dare to teach me how to swim."
Still, the show rolls along with hurdy-gurdy momentum, barreling forward storywise with a power that's engaging and often hypnotic. Fisher's direction and Squires' inventive choreography keep the big cast writhing and sprawling all over the bi-level set in ever-changing and always interesting ways.
If only the leads were better. Oristano and Fowler are ill-suited as the lovers, Queenie and Black. She's too tall and cornfed to play a wispy dancer. And she can sing loudly, but she also sings flat, although against such a minor-key score, it's hard to tell just how off-key she goes.
As for Fowler, he hasn't been a believable 25-year-old for at least 10 years, maybe longer. The Black character, played by hubba-hubba actor Taye Diggs in one of the two Broadway productions in 2000, is a manly man, able to make women weak in the knees with just a glance. Fowler, singing through his nose and stepping daintily around the stage, needs to butch it up. A lot.
The leads are out-acted and out-sung by the secondaries, Wesley as Burrs and Lockhart as Kate. She's a knockout, a 5-foot-tall girl with a 6-foot-tall voice. He sings and acts with a melancholy intensity. This really is their Party.