When it comes to musical theater, my preference tends to run toward productions that presume that it is dealing with an adult in the audience–not an adult that is looking to relive their youth, or laugh at the naive foibles of those making the transition from adolescence to the real world. Part of this is due to having my idea of what a musical is shaped by watching Herbert Ross’ 1981 version of Dennis Potter’s Pennies from Heaven along with Potter’s The Singing Detective (the BBC miniseries, not the Robert Downey Jr. abbreviation). Ideally, the approach and subject matter is grown up, and offers more than escapism in its telling.
In terms of local theater productions, this has meant that I preferred Open Circle’s Rocky Horror to 5th Avenue’s; The Schoolyard’s unsung (though messy) Cabaret to Balagan’s polished — and surprisingly sexually timid, given the play’s subject — Spring Awakening; or Curlystache’s [Name of Show] to the other massively successful, youth-oriented offering from Balagan, Avenue Q. In the case of the dueling Rocky‘s, the difference lay not just in venue size (Frank-n-furter holds more power in intimate settings), but in the updating of the musical’s decadence/nihilism themes to reflect a more modern taste. As far as the two Balagan productions go, it is simply a matter that the plays did not speak to me. Especially in the case of Avenue Q, the protagonists in these stories go through tame journeys to come to safe, predictable ends, and frankly, I couldn’t be bothered. This is not to take away from the work done by the casts and crews of these productions, mind you; everything was fine in the execution, but the appeal of both plays eluded me. (Also not not to say that the story in [Name of Show] is all that complex, just that there is more going on narratively within it than the other two.)
Along comes Sound Theatre Company’s The Wild Party, playing at the Center Theater in the Seattle Center Armory through this weekend, based on Joseph Moncure March’s infamous poem by the same name. As director Corey McDaniel notes in his introduction, the poem was banned for its “exploration of pleasure, sex, decadence, violence, race, prohibition and all that pushed the boundaries of society.” The poem has been the basis of two musical adaptations, and this one was chosen, according to McDaniel, because it is the “near-operatic version [boasting] several theater styles and a mismatched, yet infectious music score [containing] major dissonance […] atonality and many other devices that are far from period.” These words are like a gauntlet being thrown, both promising and letting the audience know that a lot is going to come their way that is both pleasing and discomfiting, and it is up to them to keep up. Suffice it to say that by the time Alyssa Keene is scatting her way through a tableaux where the sadistic/masochistic/borderline-mutually-abusive relationship between Queenie (Tori Spero) and Burrs (Troy Wagemen) is established, it seemed like that promise was well on its way to being fulfilled.
March’s poem, for all of its salacious content, is an ambiguous depiction of the metropolitan scene in New York during the mad 1920s. These people are vaudevillians, boxers, hustlers, composers, athletes, schemers, former and current prostitutes along with their pimps; the folks one would expect to find at a speakeasy in downtown New York City doing the various illicit things one would expect to have them do. March doesn’t condemn or romanticize the lifestyles of the people at the party, he simply depicts it — the reader is left to come up with their own conclusions. McDaniel and his company follow March’s lead, unflinchingly showing these characters’ actions without pulling any punches nor hiding behind coy poses in order to make things palatable. In some circles, this is known as honoring the audience’s intelligence, and it has become such a rarity to see on our stages — the majority of productions out there will hedge a bet or two or a dozen, whether in the text chosen or in the execution of a production, in order not to offend their audience — that it really does need to highlighted when one runs across it.
Refreshingly, nearly every aspect of the production is used to deliver a bracing evening of entertainment. This is especially true in Carl Petrillo’s musical direction, which handles the numerous arrythmic and discordant curve balls that composer/librettist Andrew Lippa throws his way with distinction. Kudos as well to the Sound Designer Joshua Blaisdell for managing to make the production sound crisp in a particularly acoustically challenging room to work in. Similarly, the scenic and light design help to complement each other throughout the night.
The key to the success of this party is in the revelers, and McDaniel has assembled admirable cast of Seattle fringe and musical theater regulars to fill out the roster. Each member of the cast is given a spotlight as the party progresses, an opportunity they take with an obvious, infectious relish, particularly the aforementioned Keene and Leslie Wisdom as Madelaine, the lesbian pimp looking for someone to be with.
Party‘s focus is on the love quadrangle at the center of all of these people, however, that of Queenie (Spero), Burrs (Wagemen), Kate (Allison Standley) who covets Burrs, and Mr. Black (Jesse Smith) the naif who crashes the party and falls hard for Queenie, believing she is a victim to be protected instead of an equal party of the dysfunction in her relationship with Burrs. Things get complicated and heated between these four (as well as the rest of the party, for that matter), culminating in the consummation of more than a few of the relationships on stage. These four carry the story with panache, although there were a few moments where Smith could have grounded himself a bit more in order to achieve a fuller voice. Spero’s Queenie has an emotional fragility that’s not evident in the poem — where she is more ruthless and calculating until she starts falling for Black — but Spero’s voice holds sway during her characters various solos. Wagemen gives quite a strong performance as the brutish Burrs, one can’t help but sympathize with the sucker as he slowly realizes he has, and continues to, become the patsy in this story. Standley’s performance as Kate can only be described superlatively; it’s the sort of all-encompassing possession of the character, much like Ryan Higgins’ performance in Wayne Rawley’s Live from the Last Night of My Life, that one simply admires.
Finally, the unrelenting pace at which this production moves just adds to the exhilaration it provides, and again, credit is due to the director. McDaniel made an impression last year with his direction of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels at Theater Schmeater last winter; here, he continues to show a sure hand in guiding actors to give strong and indelible performances in material that warrants it. Here’s hoping his next production continues that trend.
Through Sunday; Thursday – Saturday at 7:30p.m., Sunday at 2:00p.m. // Center Theater in the Seattle Center Armory, 305 Harrison Street // $15 – $25, Thursday’s performance is Pay What You Can; tickets available at Brown Paper Tickets