Party Time, Excellent
Silky green knickers, fishnet stockings and glistening black garters are the order of the day in Andrew Lippa's oily musical melodrama about bad love gone rotten. Based on a 1928 book-length cult poem by Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party celebrates the jazz age and its trappings: booze, blonds and bad-to-the-bone behavior. Sound familiar? Glittering like a dime-store jewel, Lippa's noisy show looks a lot like a second-rate Chicago, filled with violence, dirty dancing and a stage full of cheap floozies. But it's so much fun to see the terrific performers at The Masquerade Theatre finally get down -- and a little bit dirty -- that it's easy to forgive Lippa's hackneyed tale.
Like the poem on which it's based, The Wild Party opens with an introduction to the curvy bimbo whose party causes a heap of trouble: "Queenie was a blond, and her age stood still, and she danced twice a day in Vaudeville. What hips, what shoulders, what a back she had! Her legs were built to drive men mad." Catting across the stage in a creamy negligee, Queenie (Allison Sumrall) oozes the sort of va-va-va-voom you'd expect from a two-bit dancer who was "sexually ambitious" at the start of her career. To boot, she even "liked her lovers violent and vicious."
But by the time we catch up with Queenie, her high-wire days of dirty loving have gone south. For three years now, the dancer's been hooked up with a hard-drinking, mean-fisted vaudeville clown (no joke) named Burrs (Luther Chakurian), and she's gotten bored and lonely. All this information comes via the opening number, which features a stage full of singer/dancers with charcoal-rimmed eyes and slinky black costumes. As usual, director Phillip Duggins has coached his company into a vocal powerhouse. Everything on stage might look like the discards from another production, but the sound is impossible to resist.
We learn that Queenie shares badass Burrs's taste for hard living and hard loving. In fact, we get to sample the old heat in "The Apartment." As Burrs and the chorus sing, the dark clown gets himself all steamed up and crawls up the stairs, where our platinum-tressed lady is lounging in bed. Burrs has his way with her as the music swells.
Certainly Chakurian, with his dark eyes, flexing muscles and gorgeous singing, is reason enough to make scenes like this compelling. But Lippa's comic-book drama is impossible to take seriously; cruel clowns and tawdry ladies are too mawkishly silly to be real. In fact, the show's at its best when it pokes fun at the types who populate Queenie's wicked world. When our lady in lace decides to throw a party, all sorts of scumbags crawl out of the woodwork. And man, oh, man, do they know how to party.
During the swell scenes of raucous reveling, the show takes flight. Here, Duggins and his young cast manage to pull Lippa's story from the abyss of complete inanity, imbuing the show with deliciously raw and funny energy.
Stephanie Bradow plays Madelaine True -- a lesbian, as she announces early on -- giving a performance that makes it all worthwhile. Sashaying about in her black suit, she sings "An Old-Fashioned (lesbian) Love Story" to every girl at the party, but each is either too drunk or otherwise engaged. Though the idea is clichéd, Bradow makes it all fresh and funny, and she sings like a dream.
The same is true of Lance Marshall and Jason Blagec, who, in the roles of Oscar and Phil, a pair of young Siegfried and Roy wannabes, drip with sexy, knowing charm. The two call themselves brothers, but halfway through the party they're flinging off their clothes and writhing on the couch together.
And Laura Gray, who's both choreographer and lead dancer, is quite possibly the best thing about the entire production. Every time she kicks up her impossibly long legs, she can't help but steal the light; she's creating too much of it on her own.
The central plot line never really improves. Queenie's old-hat tale gets even shabbier when she gazes into the eyes of Black (Ilich Guardiola), a dark-haired stranger who finds his way to the party on the arm of Kate (Rebekah Dahl), a money-grubbing girl from West Virginia who has turned "whoring into art." Both Guardiola and Dahl handle the music well, but these characters have the depth of notebook paper. Predictably, Black sees the hidden purity in Queenie, singing about it in the ballad "Poor Child." And Kate, who makes a party game out of acting out the Bible, of all things, can't wait to get her hands on Burrs.
No good can come of all this. Lippa has shaped his ending into an operatic crescendo, with violence and weeping at every corner of the stage. As grist for the musical mill, perhaps the Roaring Twenties have been used up for the time being. That said, the decade must have been a great time to party.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events