The excellent local premiere of Andrew Lippa’s 2000 off-Broadway musical “The Wild Party,” adapted from Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem of the same name, intimately electrifies at Wright State University.
Presented inside the black box Herbst Theatre, “Wild Party” focuses on the destructive, unstable relationship between vaudeville performers Queenie and Burrs. In an attempt to escape the monotony of their damaged existence, they decide to host a party in their Manhattan apartment. A colorful array of eccentric characters immerse themselves in drugs, booze and sex, including Queenie’s narcissistic best friend Kate, but everyone is thrown for a loop when the sophisticated Mr. Black, Kate’s mysterious date, becomes smitten with Queenie. What was intended to be a frivolous evening of decadence evolves into a dangerously heated game of survival as deep-seated jealousy and smoldering romance collide with tragic results.
In order to ground the show in period and tone, Lippa freely incorporates lines from March’s evocative poem, a conceptual element evident in Michael John LaChuisa’s musically challenging but masterful Tony-nominated version of “Wild Party,” which also opened in 2000. However, it’s difficult to find three-dimensional characters here aside from the four principals. There are many engaging contributors to the revelry at hand, but not enough backstory to propel them beyond the surface.
Nevertheless, Lippa’s catchy score, paying homage to the Jazz Age while embracing the contemporary, is the main attraction, particularly the salsa-tinged “Raise the Roof” and the gospel-flavored “Wild, Wild Party,” choreographed with crisp exuberance by Dionysia Williams. At the same rate, his introspective ballads are equally strong, especially the haunting, soulful quartet “Poor Child.” On the whole, the music is vibrantly performed by conductor Ian Benjamin’s five-piece band and well taught by musical director Sherri Sutter.
Director Jamie Cordes, whose first-rate artistic team includes set designer Ryan Sess, lighting designer Kody Lupori and movement coach Marya Spring Cordes (who directed WSU’s outstanding “Grand Hotel” last season), offers his most striking staging to date. Effectively capturing a few scenes in shadow for moody allure, he keeps the action fluid and gripping with a pinch of suspense as testy situations swell throughout the evening. He also ensures the compelling characterizations of the four leads, generating major sparks whenever the action focuses on them, are balanced by the sharply comedic turns of the terrific supporting and ensemble players.
The beguiling, effervescent and heartbreaking Paige Dobkins truly shines as the emotionally conflicted Queenie, especially as Mr. Black’s sincere advances cause her to question the life she has made with Burrs. Dobkins’ lovely rendition of “Maybe I Like It This Way” particularly resonates late in Act 1. Fine tenor Mark Beyer, who impressively understudied the role of the Baron in “Grand Hotel,” wonderfully inhabits the cruel, moody Burrs without going over the top or seeming false. It’s easy to label Burrs as a maniacal bully, but Beyer digs deep to reveal a more complex image of a man struggling with serious emotional and psychological wounds. As the calm, cool Mr. Black, Law Dunford possesses an intoxicating chemistry with Dobkins while exemplifying how to be suave without appearing slick. The marvelous Kelsey Pohl, remarkably making her presence known with the aptly titled “Look at Me Now,” lights up the stage as Kate, who pines for Burrs. Accented by a showstopping rendition of “The Life of the Party,” Pohl’s breakthrough performance, full of attack and uninhibited glee, paints an exceptionally vivid portrait of a desperate woman recklessly pursuing a love she can never obtain.
Elsewhere, Mathys Herbert and Kevin Ferguson (two additional highlights of “Grand Hotel”) hilariously intertwine as the flamboyantly fierce D’Armano duo. The tough, no-nonsense Tommy DiMassimo and the endearing Emsie Hapner are winningly paired as boxer Eddie and his dim-witted sweetheart Mae. Emma Jordan commands attention as lesbian Madelaine True, humorously desiring “An Old-Fashioned Love Story.” Brandon Ramos (Sam Himmelsteen), Tyler Simms (Max), Alyson Snyder (Dolores), Liz Romey (Nadine), Victoria Gilman (Jackie) as well as ensemble members Lauren Schorr, Bradley Farmer and Abby Murray Vachon add spice and personality to this captivating experience.
“The Wild Party” continues through Nov. 24 in the Herbst Theatre of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Nov. 22 and 23 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 23 and 24 at 2 p.m. The production runs 2 hours and 23 minutes including one 15-minute intermission. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $5 for students. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500. Patrons are advised the musical contains adult language and themes.