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.
What is it with the faith of Mitt Romney that produces so many arty defectors, including not just South Park co-creator Trey Parker and playwright/filmmaker Neil LaBute but, now, excommunicated sixth-generation Utah Mormon and missionary Steven Fales? Fales, whose journey took him from a squeaky-clean believer’s adherence to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to drug-fueled New York hustling and beyond, tells his “true story” in Confessions of a Mormon Boy, which Boston Theatre Works brings to the BCA Plaza (through May 19). In the solo show, the clean-cut Fales, tossing off a few sweet songs, relates his story in a straightforward, ingenuous way that almost defies the term “show.”
Then again, this is a one-time aspiring chorus boy who knows that, however many times you thumb a well-worn Bible or crank up a voiceover of your innocent childhood self, it’s a good idea to take your clothes off — which the buff confessor does while shedding his Mormon uniform of white shirt and tie for the tight black jeans and open shirt of a well-remunerated Manhattan “escort.” Eventually he melds his disparate lives into that of a proud gay man, father of two, but not before being stretched on a rack of guilt and “reparative” quackery. Along the way, the church of his forefathers, having paid for counseling redolent of Freud and chest hair, convenes a kangaroo court to excommunicate “Brother Fales” for homosexuality, even though in its eyes homosexuality “does not exist.”