Dallas — There are two musicals of the same name because they are both adaptations of Joseph Moncure March’s narrative poem of the same title, The Wild Party. Both productions opened during the same 1999-2000 theater season which must have been a publicity nightmare. The two shows are since distinguished by including the composer’s name for the Lippa version. People who know will say whether they are talking about the Michael John LaChiusa musical or Andrew Lippa’s musical.
The world premiere of Lippa’s musical was in 2000 at the Manhattan Theater Club following a workshop production which starred Kristin Chenoweth. While both productions share the same source material and title, that is where the similarities stop. They are very different in construct, style and interpretation. The LaChiusa version is set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance while Lippa’s interpretation is set in the 1920s but not as tied to the Harlem Renaissance.
The Lippa version is popular this season on local stages: The Colony’s Lakeside Community Theatre produced it a few months ago, and Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre does it in the spring of 2020. It’s currently the season-opening show at Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts Theatre Center, with direction by Adam Adolfo musical direction by Casidy Castillo-Wilson, and choreography by Isaiah Harris. This team shapes the work of the 14-person cast as they tell the story of performers Queenie and Burrs on one night when they threw the party to end all parties.
Queenie (Kristin Colaneri) has finally met a man, Burrs (Nolan Spinks), who can match her voracious sexual appetite. In time as their fervor for each other wanes, Burrs’ violent tendency surfaces. Queenie decides to throw a wild party as a way of invigorating their affair. Kate (Ashley Ragsdale) brings Mr. Black (Antonio Demonde Thomas) to the party. Other guests are Madelaine True (Sarah Powell), Eddie (Gen Donnell), Mae (Alex Sutherland), Dolores (Damara M. Williams), Nadine (Karrington Davis), Sam (Alexander Sudhir Joshi), Max (Shane Morgan), the D’Amano brothers, Oscar (Joe Rhoads) and Phil (William Tennent Cheek). Rounding out the cast is Jackie (Jason Hallman), a dancer.
To be fair, this script has difficulties. The story is muddled in places and the work doesn’t know what it wants to be. This conflict appears in the songs as well, resulting in a potpourri of styles that are not always true to the 1920s. With such a piece, the director’s vision has heightened importance because it should provide clarity for the audience. That doesn’t happen here.
Starting with what is successful, this cast tells the story and deliver commendable performances. The company does well with “The Juggernaut,” which is also one of the few good choreographed moments. The quartet “Poor Child” with Ragsdale, Thomas, Sparks, and Colaneri is lovely, definitely one of the bright spots of the first act. Their voices complement each other well, with Thomas being the standout. “Two of a Kind” with Donnell and Sutherland is cute, and the male voices in “Let Me Drown” delight.
Colaneri and Spinks work well together as the lusty couple always looking for more excitement. It isn’t necessary to have Sarah Powell break the fourth wall as Madelaine, but she sells her number.
Sound can be a challenge to balance when the band is exposed onstage, but they avoid overpowering the cast. Drummer and musical director Castillo-Wilson leads the ensemble of Thiago X. Nascimento on keyboard, Christopher Williams on guitar, Kipp Brewer on trumpet, and Tony Ballard.
The cast looks good thanks to the costuming of Tamara Ballard, who evokes the era while creating costumes that allows the actors to move in difficult situations, like climbing a ladder and a fight scene. Queenie is supposed to be the visual focus of the piece and through costume and hair, she is.
Of the problem areas, lighting and staging are the biggest party poopers. Ashley Ragsdale sings and dances an entire number, “The Life of the Party,” in the dark. She’s good and should be lit properly. Burrs is in the dark during “Let Me Drown.” Colaneri is finally in the light toward the end of “How Did We Come to This,” the last number in the show. Throughout the show, actors are singing solos either in the dark, or with a spot on their calves or shoulders instead of their faces. At one point there is what appears to be a psychedelic gobo on the cyc that is completely out of period with the piece.
Adolfo’s direction is a lesson in wasted space. Actors stand around onstage for no reason, leaving half of the playing area empty and brightly lit while the vocalists are singing in an arc, out of the light. Why are those people there? “A Wild, Wild Party” lacks energy because of the staging and choreography. This cast moves well enough to have been more interestingly choreographed and positioned. There are levels onstage which are used during one act and abandoned during another. The singing saves the show, as does the interplay among the principals.
But that’s not enough to keep this party from being a bust.
» Correction: The original review stated that the character of Jackie is in the LaChiusa version, but not the Lippa musical. Jackie is indeed in both musicals. TheaterJones regrets the error.