First Nighter: Andrew Lippa's "Wild Party" Not Nearly Wild Enough

Sure enough, by the time the first act finished, I was much more impressed with the adaptation of Joseph Moncure March's engagingly dark Jazz-Age poem than I'd been the first time around -- a seeming improvement I attributed to several elements.
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Because I willingly concede that my memory can be faulty, I determined to watch with an open mind the City Center Encores! Off-Center revival of Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party. I didn't care much for it at the Manhattan Theatre Club premiere in 2000 when it hung around for 54 performances, but I'm always ready to be proved wrong.

Sure enough, by the time the first act finished, I was much more impressed with the adaptation of Joseph Moncure March's engagingly dark Jazz-Age poem than I'd been the first time around -- a seeming improvement I attributed to several elements.

These include Leigh Silverman's slick direction of a polished cast led by Sutton Foster in blond Reno-Sweeney wig and slinky gown; Sonya Tayeh's erotic choreography as danced with sultry aplomb by the sinuous Foster and other sexy cast members; Steven Pasquale portraying a tragic clown in a full-throttle performance I hadn't previously seen from him and went for bigtime; some apparently beneficial Lippa tinkering with his earlier script; musical director and pianist Chris Fenwick's leading a taut nine-person ensemble; and a magnetic opening number that boded well for what was to follow.

Just to fill in those unfamiliar with the gritty March stanzas or anyone who's read them but forgotten: Queenie (Foster) and Burrs (Pasquale) are letting the volatility in their relationship get out of hand. To pick up her spirits, Queenie decides to throw a party in their slightly-better-than-tenement Manhattan flat. Prominently joining in on the drinking and drugging and beast-with-two-backs shenanigans are hyper-macho Black (Brandon Victor Dixon) and his flapping flapper galfriend Kate (Joaquina Kalukango).

In the bat of a mascaraed eyelash, Queenie sees Black as being the man of her future, and Kate sets her sights on Burrs. Where Black immediately takes to Queenie as kites take to the wind, Burrs isn't so smitten with Kate. While the other party attendees go about their uninhibited business, the focal characters' entanglements build to an explosive climactic development that's been in the cards from the beginning.

Which brings us to the second act, which is such a fall-off from the first that it's as if a script avalanche has buried the troubled tuner. Since little is known about Queenie or Burrs or Black or Kate -- as that little is revealed on the garishly sparse Donyale Werle set and in Clint Ramos's more or less period costumes -- their conflicted feelings about each other are the only dramatic pegs established.

Throughout this half Lippa has them constantly reiterate those feelings. The ratcheted up emotions remain the same no matter who is singing about -- and/or to -- whom. To me, the abundant threnodies sound like the same song repeated unnecessarily. I grant that Lippa did come up with different melodies and lyrics. I know that, but what he didn't come up as the sometime counter-point tunes soared was anything capable of sustaining interest in these increasingly alienating figures.

Perhaps the finishing touch Lippa puts on the proceedings is the closing song he gives Queenie, which, he says during an interview published in the program, very deliberately replaces her original last outcry. Supposedly, as dawn is breaking on the unsuccessful bash, Queenie is confronting her disturbed past and vowing to learn from the long-night's-journey-into-morning consequences. Unfortunately, although Foster commits herself to the sentiment -- as she always does -- the new aria is so clichéd and muddled that it only serves to mark Queenie as not much of a thinker or, worse, any better off than she was at the start. As she walks into the sunrise, patrons are excused for saying to themselves, Peggy-Lee-like, "Is that all there is?" Tame bromides?

But as ticket buyers exit, possibly thinking the two hours spent have been worthless, they do have the opportunity to remember some of the bright spots, most but not all of them in the perky first act. Since there are moments in this Wild Party where Lippa gives the impression he'd have preferred to compose a Jazz Age revue in which a succession of charismatic entertainers sing a succession of entertaining numbers, it's helpful, for instance when Miriam Shor as on-the-prowl lesbian Madelaine True bites into "An Old-Fashioned Love Story." She and it are anything but old-fashioned. Also Ryan Andes and Talene Monahon as secondary couple Eddie and Mae brighten things up every once in a while.

And there are the adroit dancers, who liven the stage when they're not required to wait patiently in the dark, transmitting the silent message that Queenie's party actually isn't as wild as Lippa -- but not Joseph Moncure March -- thinks it is.

Incidentally, this adaptation opened at MTC only a few short weeks before the Michael John LaChiusa-George C. Wolfe treatment bowed on Broadway and ran just a few more performances than its predecessor. At the time I preferred Lippa's take, if I remember correctly, but -- this is aimed at the Off-Center deciders and their prospects for a future season -- I don't feel any pressing need to have my recollection confirmed.

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