SALT LAKE CITY — This weekend I was excited to see The Wild Party as produced by the University of Utah Department of Theatre, in their Studio 115 space. I am always impressed by the variety in the U of U’s theatre season; they always seem to be doing something really interesting. This is a great show that just doesn’t get a lot of attention, especially in Utah, so I was glad to have the chance to see it.
The Wild Party, with book, music, and lyrics written by Andrew Lippa based on the poem of the same title by Joseph Moncure March, is the story of a troubled couple, Queenie (Sara Kae Childs) and Burrs (Jeffry David Skiba), living together in Manhattan in 1928. Both work in Vaudeville — Queenie as a showgirl and Burrs as a clown. Early in their relationship they seemed perfectly matched, but Queenie wants to get away from Burrs and his boorish brutality. She plans to throw a party to embarrass Burrs in front of all of their friends. The party is indeed wild as a range of characters come together to enjoy sex, booze, drugs, and music.
As the night goes on the party gets wilder, and a somewhat reformed prostitute Kate (Connor Norton) arrives with a stranger in tow, Mr. Black (Jaron Barney). Kate has eyes only for Burrs, while Black starts to fall for Queenie. The evening passes in a series of vignettes, sung by different guests, these storytelling moments interlaced between scenes forwarding the tale of Queenie and Burrs. Structure isn’t the strength of Lippa’s piece, as the action starts and stops so that songs can be presented, instead of letting songs move the plot along. Not to say those vignettes aren’t entertaining in and of themselves; several give meaningful glances into the lives of the minor characters. One of my favorites was Madeleine True (Elena Dern) whose “An Old-Fashioned Love Story” is hilarious with a stripe of sadness happening beneath. I enjoyed Dern’s performance, both of the song and throughout the show; Madeleine True is a character whose tongue is planted firmly in her cheek, and I sensed that Dern was having a great time playing her.
There are some strong voices in this cast. I enjoyed listening to Sara Kae Childs as Queenie; she relishes every number, embracing the showgirl side of her character. I would have liked, however, to see more vulnerability and less facade in Queenie; I never really felt I knew Queenie well enough to feel for her. Childs has a great singing voice, as do Barney and Norton, but while I enjoyed the music performed by all three, I felt more disconnected from the story than I like to. There seemed to be more of an emphasis on the showiness of the play rather than the meat of its plot. While I can see that the play itself is light on story, I do think there is room to allow the audience to develop deeper sympathies for these characters. Perhaps the disconnect is intended by director David Schmidt — to show this wild night of hedonism and excess through a filter of sorts — though I personally would have preferred going without it.
For me the most impressive performance of the night belonged to Jeffry David Skiba, whose portrayal of Burrs was raw, honest, and charged. I appreciated the levels Skiba brought his role, making Burrs both frightening and sympathetic. I don’t condone his abusive treatment of Queenie, but I can see that he is troubled and not just a simple brute. Watching him unravel through the night was both sad and satisfying.
I enjoyed Christine Moore’s choreography; it’s complex and interesting, and felt appropriate to the period and the music. There were moments, though, when it got a little sketchy — and even potentially dangerous in a few — due to the fact that such a large ensemble was crowded into such a tiny space. It’s not to say that Studio 115 is too small; during the more intimate moments in the show, it’s perfectly suited to the story, even lending a sense of tightness to the apartment and to Queenie and Burrs’ relationship. But the ensemble is on the large side for a black box production, especially one that requires as much dancing as The Wild Party does.
This is a dark and ambitious piece, and those involved should be applauded for tackling it. I like Lippa’s book and score and I had a great time seeing them staged. I think those who are fans of the more obscure gems of musical theatre will appreciate and enjoy this production.