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The Wild Party: Depravity, Decadence and Exciting, Vibrant Theater

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The set-up: The Wild Party was a 1928 book-length poem by Joseph Moncure March, widely banned for its decadent content, which led to its becoming a cult classic. By coincidence, two musicals based on it were produced in Manhattan in the 1999-2000 season, one on Broadway and one off-Broadway. Andrew Lippa wrote the off- Broadway version. and Houston's Bayou City Theatrics now presents it. The execution:

The plot is deceptively simple. Blond vaudeville dancer Queenie (Danica Dawn Johnston) and famed clown Burrs (Colton Berry) decide to settle down together, and they move into a loft. Several years later, passion has ebbed, and after a brutal incident with Burrs, Queenie determines to humiliate him publicly, and suggests a party, where she intends to accomplish this.

The guests are colorful and eclectic. Kate (Erin Wasmund), Queenie's best friend and friendly rival, arrives with the mysterious Mr. Black (Jake Frank), and cross-currents of lust almost immediately connect Queenie and Mr. Black, while Kate pursues Burrs.

Newly-weds arrive, the prizefighter Eddie (Miguel Garcia) and his bride Mae (Derrien Kellum), the lesbian Madelaine True (Miatta Lebile), the gay D'Armano brothers (Scott Lupton and Terran Swonke), into each other far too much, as well as Sam, a producer (Brian Chambers), Delores, a hooker (Kelley Waguespack), Nadine, a minor (Shanae'a Moore), and Jackie, a dancer.

This is Manhattan in 1928, but it could just as well be Manhattan in the '70s, or Berlin in the '20s, as pictured by the artist George Grosz, who caricatured its depravity and decadence. Large amounts of alcohol are consumed, drugs are taken and shared, and the bed at stage left is visited by a series of occupants. There is no attempt to glamorize the life-style, and even the sex in an orgy staged in silhouette seems joyless.

And yet, it is exciting, vibrant theater, since the nuanced performance of Johnston as Queenie grabs you by the throat on her entrance, and never lets go. The direction by Colton Berry keeps the cast in almost constant motion, like animals in a zoo pacing anxiously as they sense the formation of a hurricane, a tsunami, or, perhaps, Armageddon. The effect is often unpleasant, but also riveting, haunting and memorable.

The performances are slightly stylized, but still highly realistic - Queenie and Burrs are performers, after all, and most of the characters are in show business. The overall effect is operatic. We sense that deep currents are at work, carving their way through underground psyches, creating tinder for an emotional match, leading to an explosion that may blow up the world. And one does occur here, one that at least blows up the world of Queenie and Burrs. For most of the musical, you could cut the tension with a knife.

The music provides dramatic punctuation, and 25 songs which stem from the situation, or from the emotions of the characters. Under a veneer of sophistication, these party-goers are searching desperately for an elusive sense of identity, though looking, clearly, in all the wrong places. The music accompanies them on this search, with songs like "Poor Child", "Two of a Kind", "Maybe I Like it this Way", and 22 others.

The script has a problem, in that Burrs' steep descent into chemical mood-changers tends to de-humanize him, making him an out-of-control parable instead of a flawed human. But Berry's intensity and vitality makes even a violent, one-sided characterization fascinating.

Most of the cast is onstage for almost the entire production, and Berry has created a smoothly-functioning ensemble, with Wasmund as Kate a powerful comedic standout, especially in her solo turn in a bathtub. Lebile brings heart and a great voice to "An Old-Fashioned Love Story", and Swonke as a D'Armano brother provides spot-on reactions that make what could have been a caricature into an authentic and amusing human. While the ensemble is smooth, some of the actors in less important roles lack polish in line readings.

Andrew Lippa did it all: book, music and lyrics. Luke Hamilton provided the vibrant choreography. Jane Volke directs the excellent five-piece orchestra. The costumes, also by Colton Berry, could not be better - they are colorful, amusing and appropriately period. The highly complex and successful lighting design is by Tyler Frazier.

The verdict:

Decadence can have its own fascination, and brilliant performances by Danica Dawn Johnston and Colton Berry create a world you wouldn't want to live in, but one that certainly you will enjoy visiting, in a rare production of a challenging and breathtakingly powerful musical.

Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party continues through July 27 from Bayou City Theatrics at Barnevelder Arts Complex. For information or ticketing, call 832-444-4400 or contact www.bayoucitytheatrics.com.

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