Andrew Lippa composed the musical based on a long poem of the same title written by Joseph Moncure March in 1926 but considered too provocative for publication, so it wasn't printed until 1928. There is another musical based on this source by Michael John LaChuisa written around the same time as Lippa's, so the two are often confused. This version is set in Manhattan, 1928, in a milieu where the flappers were flapping, the guys were tough, and the booze was strong (and illegal).
Until I looked for background, I didn't understand some of what was going on in the piece. That problem was exacerbated by having taken a seat to the side. The show is blocked to the center section of the house. When I moved for Act II, things cleared up somewhat. Strong singers like Deborah Sharn, Jeffrey Pruett, Nikki Glenn (Kate, Burrs, and Madeline True, respectively) don't have a problem making themselves understood throughout the house. The weaker ones do because there are, thankfully, no microphones. When the company sings together, it's generally fine too, except for occasional problems with fuzzy enunciation. The band also under Scott Miller's direction needs to back off a little bit in the solos, especially Queenie's.
The first song, "Queenie Was a Blonde" has a number of lyrics taken directly from the poem, and that text is followed reasonably closely throughout. Queenie (Margeau Baue Steinau) and her lover Burrs work in vaudeville. She's a dancer and he's a clown, and both are notorious players until they get together with each other. They settle down for a while, but when the newness wears off, both are bored. Queenie angers Burrs and he rapes her. Then, after threatening him with a knife, she suggests they have a party that night, and he's all for it. Her agenda: to humiliate him. His: to "get tight."
Though Queenie wears black in the poem's account of the party, Miller keeps Steinau in white throughout the show, both a party dress and, for the sex scenes which are graphic, a corset and stockings. Add a platinum wig, and she does stand out in the crowd. All the costumes are fun (by Thom Crain), the lighting evocative (by Shannon Fedde) and Todd Schaefer's set looks suitably dissolute with scarves and oddly shaped furniture and a bed on wheels that gets quite a workout.
Most of the degenerates comprising the party guests have been in previous New Line Productions. Company regular Zachary Allen Farmer is excellent as Eddie, the "pugilist," who's clearly been hit one too many times but still has the strength to take Burrs down for insulting his girl, Mae (Emily Berry). Mike Dowdy, another veteran of the company, displays a fine singing voice as Oscar D'Armano, a Broadway composer who works with his brother, Phil (Joel Hackbarth). Both are wearing identical suits, lipstick, rouge and powder and their relationship is, uh, ambiguous.
Madeline True is an out and proud lesbian whose song "n Old-Fashioned Love Story" provides a highlight of the show, as she sings it to Mae's younger sister, Nadine (14!) played by Marcia Noorman. All of the party-goers do stay in character, even when they're not center stage. This attention to detail is a New Line trademark, and adds texture and dimension to all its shows.
When Kate arrives with her guest, Mr. Black (Keith Parker), the party (and the show) kick up a notch. Sharn is Queenie's best frenemy and rival. She weaves around drunkenly, unleashing that big beautiful voice and dominates every scene she's in. She has a yen for Burrs, but probably more to put one over on Queenie than for attraction to his dubious charms. Pruett is also fine in the showÃ„Ã®a triple threat, he sings, dances and acts equally well.
Kate's goal at the party is to make him. Queenie decides the handsome Black is her way to get revenge on Burrs, but then finds herself falling for him. Her feelings are reciprocated. The party turns into a drunken, pot fueled orgy and things get seriously out of control. Eventually a gun is produced, and Chekhov's rule is observed.
There are elements of Chicago and Cabaret here. The choregraphy by Robin Michelle Berger is an accomplishment, considering the number of singer/dancers vis-a-vis the amount of space available. A small apartment would be crowded with this many bodies crammed into it, but they would be unlikely to be doing an intricate line dance ("The Juggernaut") or any of the other numbers that involve the entire company. The jazzy score is fun to listen to, and although the lyrics are sometimes convoluted, many are quite clever. But, the final sung line is unintelligible, as least to me and the people around me whom I asked. The book, such as it is, seems weak, though I do recommend that you read the poem before you go. (Miller lists it as a reference in the program.) It will all make a lot more sense that way.
The Wild Party by New Line Theatre runs through May 15 at the Washington University South Campus (former CBC High School) on Clayton Rd. For information, you may call 314-534-1111 or visit New Line Theatre.