Smile Politely

Sex, drugs, and jazz, baby

Even as I write this, Kendall Johnson’s directorial debut — the Armory Free Theatre production of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party — is only a funky, funky memory. Its full run lasted only two performances, a scant fifteen hours apart, and yet the reverberations of this funny, nasty, thrilling musical experience are going to last a long time in the minds of those who were lucky enough to see it. I was one such lucky audience member; I was witness to the acting, the dancing, the singing, and the music; I was witness to the heart and soul of The Wild Party.

When I interviewed Kendall Johnson recently, I had no intention of writing a review of his show. “It will be too late,” I thought. “By the time someone writes a review and anyone reads it, the show will be over.” But then I saw The Wild Party. I was fortunate enough to get in while so many others waited in line in vain. But when I saw what this scrappy, talented, rocket-fueled group of performers had created, I knew I had to write about it. I knew that, if only belatedly, attention had to be paid.

The air inside the dark, crowded black box of the Armory was thick with anticipation. The audience at the midnight premiere was amped-up and ready for a good time. (And yes, I get the feeling there had been some “pre-game” celebrating.) The hoots, cat-calls, squeals, and genuine joy coming off the hundred or so attendees were infectious and only added to the wave of energy that spread outward from the cast. I don’t remember the last time I saw an audience enjoy anything quite this much, and the electricity and love they showered on the actors was reflected back in the exhilaration of the men and women who peopled the stage.

Speaking of the stage: the set, such as it was, was nearly perfect. Simple, spare, effective. This show didn’t need a lot of furniture or props to make the audience believe they were at a party. The party was all around. The actors were the party, and they partied hard. What furniture there was moved throughout the action in an elegant and efficient way so that no one’s view was obstructed for more than a moment.

Then again, that’s all part of the experience, isn’t it? Isn’t that the mark of a good party? Isn’t there always something interesting happening, just on the other side of that clump of people, just around that corner? Doesn’t it all seem so damned interesting when you only catch a glimpse?

The plot of The Wild Party, for anyone who is unfamiliar, is relatively straightforward. The main dame, Queenie, is a bored sexpot in love with a tempestuous clown named Burrs. And when I say clown, I don’t mean a goofy fella; he’s a genuine vaudeville comedian with a hunger for sex, drugs, and jazz. This hot-tempered couple, always ready to push each others’ buttons, throws a raucous party for their boozy, flamboyant friends. Then, in the course of human events, lust and jealousy get stirred into the mix; accusations and punches are thrown, and love is pushed to its breaking point.

The orchestra, conducted by Aaron Kaplan, pumped music through the show like so much alcohol coursing through the veins of the characters singing and dancing on stage. And what singers and dancers they were, choreographed by Johnson and Steph Galvin. The choreography was perfect for the Armory’s small space and constantly energized the production and the crowd, eliciting shrieks of various kinds from many of the witnesses. Of particular impressive note were the full-cast romp called “The Juggernaut” and a solo dance piece by Luis Vasquez, both of which were sights to behold.

The cast itself was nothing short of a marvel. Rarely have I seen a cast of this size so committed to character at every turn, so uniformly In The Moment. A scan of the peripheral players during any solo number or quiet two-person exchange revealed no one breaking character, no one betraying the illusion of the party to which we all were invited. And while some of the singers might have been stronger than others, all were true to their characters and put on a hell of a show.

As Queenie and Burrs, Allison Morse and Moeller Aker generated plenty of heat. In body-sculpting costumes courtesy of Thom Schnarre, they commanded the stage and were instantly believable as both devious schemers and red hot lovers. The statuesque Morse made a compelling siren whose hidden layers of heartbreak and need struggled to the surface. And Aker, with his Hugh Jackman-like timing and charm, was a perfect Burrs, as liable to explode with laughter as with rage. Truly impressive performances from both.

Also impressive and well cast were the various colorful characters attending this soiree. Among them (among others) were: Ellen Fred as a lethal kewpie doll named Kate, with whom both Queenie and Burrs share a past; Adam Thatcher as the quiet but dangerous man named Black, on whom Queenie’s affections come to rest; and Naomi Mark as an out-and-proud but out-of-luck lesbian named Madeline True. Each of these performers was given a chance to bring down the house in his or her own way, and each delivered, as did two very intriguing couples: the first, Eddie and Mae (Brian Krause and Jaclyn Hergott) are a boxer and his helium-voiced lover; the second, Phil and Oscar D’Armano (Neal Thomas and Chris Cayari), are an incestuous pair of musical composers. All turned heads, dropped jaws, and drew cheers.

From the headlining actors to the sideline players, this cast came ready to play. And yes, the songs in the second act aren’t as great as the ones in the first; and yes, there’s a little drag to the pace in the second hour, when the party is reaching the wee hours. But this is also a fairly accurate depiction of an actual party, in which the liquor and laughs come fast and furious initially, only to have the good times bottom out as the sunrise nears.

Perhaps it was not a perfect production, but neither was it presented with the polish of one. What it was, instead, was a gutsy, sweaty, bare-knuckle, late-night fling that exploded like a powder keg and left the audience gasping for breath. And for more.

If you were lucky enough to get in, you know what I’m talking about. If you weren’t so lucky, you missed out. It was a wild, wild party.


Photo credits: Jesse Folks, Thom Schnarre, Ellen Fred. Poster by Niccole Powers.

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