THE WILD PARTY: Some novelty numbers, but the other Party’s better.
The epic poem The Wild Party is most famous for inspiring two musicals that appeared in the same millennial year, stealing or perhaps multiplying each other’s thunder. Joseph Moncure March’s 1926 exercise in steamy syncopation had been out of print for years when a copy was discovered by artist Art Spiegelman, who resurrected it in a 1994 edition illustrated with his woodcuts of March’s account of a hedonistic Prohibition-era bash awash in jealousy and bathtub gin. That in turn inspired both Michael John LaChiusa’s 2000 musical rendition, which got its local premiere from SpeakEasy Stage Company in 2002, and Andrew Lippa’s, which is now grinding its way across the New Repertory Theatre stage (at Arsenal Center for the Arts through May 20). Sad to say, LaChiusa’s is better — though Lippa wins points for novelty numbers. Moreover, on opening night, New Rep added to the show’s whiffs of Chicago and Cabaret one of 42nd Street, with understudy Aimee Doherty going on a chorus girl but coming back a star. Oops, she already was a star, as she proved in Lyric Stage Company’s recent production of LaChiusa’s See What I Wanna See.
But enough of LaChiusa. Composer/lyricist/librettist Lippa’s incarnation of The Wild Party, which won Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards, also tells the downward-spiraling tale of platinum-blonde vaudeville dancer Queenie and her abusive boyfriend Burrs, a Pagliacci-like vaudeville clown, and the bohemian bash they throw for diversion and revenge. No sooner is the idea hatched than the towering brick and mirrored apartment of Janie E. Howland’s set, seemingly lit by glimmering upturned candles, starts to fill with Jazz Age sybarites. “Like birds of prey/’Round the hors d’œuvre tray” they flock, including hulking boxer Eddie and his diminutive girlfriend, Mae, Click-and-Clack gay musicians Oscar and Phil, inarticulate dancer Jackie, jailbait Nadine, and on-the-make lesbian Madelaine True. But the drawn-out, strident story revolves around the love-hate of Queenie and Burrs, which explodes into violence when good-time-girl Kate shows up with new guy Black, who locks eyes and then reproductive organs with Queenie, promising to treat her better than Burrs does.
Lippa’s score is introduced by a screaming horn, and there’s plenty of jazz influence, as well as Latin rhythms, dissonant Sondheim borrowings, the syncopated ebullience of Fats Waller, and a gospel rouser worthy of Nicely-Nicely Johnson. But it’s all so relentless, and the pop ballads, particularly for the allegedly hard-edged Queenie, are lugubrious. That doesn’t keep director Rick Lombardo’s ensemble (eventually shedding flapper accouterment for period underwear) from giving its all, both to the brassy musical numbers and to Kelli Edwards’s writhing, tumbling, circling choreography — which occasionally has the performers on their backs like upturned bugs with restless-leg syndrome.
Although Doherty, filling in for an ailing Marla Mindelle, brought a pretty soprano and a sad winsomeness to Queenie, the most forceful performance is by Todd Alan Johnson, an anguished if brute Burrs who gives a manic edge — and powerful pipes — to aggressive clown shtick that, when Burrs grows jealous of the African-American Black, turns racist. Maurice E. Parent sings well as Black but fails to exude the smolder that might pry Queenie from Burrs. Sarah Corey, as coke-snorting “life of the party” Kate, supplies a giddiness that’s refreshing in the face of this wild party’s collective, sexually frenzied desperation. But Leigh Barrett, as the wry lesbian, gets the spikiest, most Brechtian song, with by far the best lyrics: “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” a comic anthem to “well-rendered, one-gendered” romance. She steals the show, of course. But wisely sensing there are better ones out there, she gives it back.