By Peter Filichia
How well I remember entering the downstairs lobby at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000 and seeing the two signs – one of which surprised me.
Oh, by then, we’d all become accustomed to “A gunshot will be heard during this performance,” but here was a new one: “Herbal cigarettes are used in this production.”
As it turned out, so were style, wit, melody, excitement and mood, not to mention lighting, performances, direction and choreography. All were sensational in this musical version of Joseph Moncure March’s epic 1928 poem The Wild Party.
That 1999-2000 season would offer another musical based on the famous, ribald and outrageous work: Michael John LaChiusa’s version that would play Broadway. Thus this off-Broadway version for which Andrew Lippa wrote book, music and lyrics didn’t transfer to The Main Stem.
This saddened me, for all I needed on that heavenly night in 2000 was fourteen seconds of Gabriel Barre’s brilliant production to know that I wanted to see it again and again. And again. And next week I’ll get another chance, thanks to Encores! Off-Center, which celebrates off-Broadway musicals. Be there during a three-day stretch (July 16-18) when The Wild Party plays only steps away from the basement in which it had premiered on West 55th Street. Now it will be upstairs in the same building at City Center where it will play to a house bigger than any on Broadway: 2,257 seats. Thus, plenty of people will be able to witness Lippa’s finest achievement – which includes The Greatest Showstopper the Average Theatergoer Doesn’t Know.
I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm for the musical. You know a show is scoring when the audience can’t wait till the end of the number to applaud, but feels compelled to start its handclapping midway through. That happened over and over and over again at the performance I attended.
Granted, we found the plot a little thin. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy – well, let’s not give it away. But in my mind, that boy — Brian d’Arcy James – was the Best Musical Actor of the season, while that girl – Julia Murney – was 1999-2000’s Best Musical Actress. Steven Pasquale and Sutton Foster now have these roles at Encores! and will undoubtedly be splendid. That said, the original off-Broadway cast album proves that they have tough acts to follow.
D’Arcy James and Murney respectively played Burrs and Queenie, both Roaring ’20s entertainers. Burrs makes his living as a clown, “but behind the scenes,” wrote Lippa, “he was mean and rough.” Yes, like so many comics and stooges who get laughed at and mocked day after day after day after day, he’s developed quite the surly off-stage personality. “He was,” decided Lippa, “a very scary clown” – sad, desperate, pathetic and crazy, mixing and matching each of those adjectives into a Rubik’s cube’s worth of combinations.
March started his work with “Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still and she danced twice a day in vaudeville.” Lippa adroitly set those seventeen words to music, but then went out on his own: “Queenie was a blonde and if looks could kill she would kill twice a day in vaudeville.” True, this woman made Sally Bowles seem like Maria von Trapp. But, for as Lippa wrote, “The one thing they had in common: they were good in bed.”
Frankly, these two killers in the sack might kill each other before the show is through. Their relationship has been going sour for some time, mostly out of boredom. Queenie feels that throwing an impromptu party might put some zing back into their lives. “Let’s Raise the Roof,” she tells Burrs in a song that’s Spanish-tinged – an ethnicity often cited for its sexual passion and freedom.
Or is Queenie really looking for someone new? “I wish that a bolt of lightning would hit,” she sings. It will – once Black enters. Queenie and he may not experience love at first sight, but they certainly exhibit lust at first glance. The music that plays when they finally approach each other in earnest – enhanced by Michael Gibson’s superb orchestration – is terrific. And those lyrics that follow! “Touch me now! Touch me here!” Queenie demands of Black. “Come with Me,” his next song, has him insist that they “do only what the animals do.”
Black may well be the show’s most arresting character. While March established that he’s “tanned,” Lippa made him indeed black. Never mind that he admits “I work at a club; hold the door; nothing more.” As played by Taye Diggs, this Black was a man who knew that if you carry yourself with strength and dignity, people will take their cue from you and treat you that way. Not many African-Americans in 1928 would view a white woman as a “Poor Child,” but Black does in one of Lippa’s more powerful songs, which he has Black sing with the smoothness of Johnny Walker Black. (Brandon Victor Dixon plays him at Encores!)
But Black came to the party with Kate, Queenie’s best friend and, not incidentally, best rival. She was portrayed by no less than Idina Menzel, fresh from Maureen in Rent en route to Elphaba in Wicked. (Joaquina Kalukango plays her at Encores!) While I’m handing out my own personal awards, let me says that Diggs was that season’s Best Supporting Musical Actor and Menzel’s 1999-2000’s Best Supporting Musical Actress. (At least for a while they had to be glad they did the show; they got a ten-year marriage out of it.)
Menzel sings “Look at Me Now” with such defiance that no one would ever think to put his eyes anywhere else. Near song’s end, she cries out “Give me a bottle of bourbon and half a chicken and I’ll conquer the world!” Historians say that the Dada movement came to an end in 1924, but this line seems to be a remnant of the era.
Kate takes pride in reinventing herself: “I was born in a ditch in West Virginia,” she brags. Fine, but she hasn’t come as far as Menzel has since the Tony®-winner’s early days in Syosset, New York. So much for “Who needs fortune or fame?” as she asks here. Menzel just happened to get both. When you hear her in this riveting number, you’ll have no problem figuring at which point the audience broke into applause. It’s bound to do it at the same spot next week at Encores!
So which of these four has that aforementioned The Greatest Showstopper the Average Theatergoer Doesn’t Know? None. It belongs to Madelaine True, played with astonishing authority by Alix Korey, who has at least the same percentage of leather in her lungs that Ethel Merman once possessed. Here’s hoping that Miriam Shor at Encores! does too.
During a Weillish vamp, Madelaine spied a hot number standing at the bar and believed that this would be her next conquest. No such luck. So she instead launched into “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” and I knew from the first A-section that in a few minutes I’d be clapping my hands as loudly as I could.
Actually, “A Good-Natured, Old-Fashioned Lesbian Love Story” is what the number should be called. But in the tradition of “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” – which of course should logically be called “Tits and Ass” (and was until audiences weren’t laughing because they’d already got the joke from reading the program) – Lippa wisely saved the audacious words for the song itself.
The type of love of which Madelaine sings is indeed old – dating back to at least 600 B.C., when it was all the rage on the Isle of Lesbos. I suspect this stunning song has over the years been sung at many gay piano bars, be they populated by men or women. If not, you may well want to be the one to introduce it after you hear Korey nail it – nay, hammer it.
The show uses a line of dialogue first heard a quarter-century earlier: “I gotta pee.” Except when Roxie Hart in Chicago says it, she runs off-stage and modestly does her business elsewhere. Menzel instead pulled down her panties, got comfy on the throne and let it rip. How well I remember the audience tittering nervously when the sound-system aired a long tinkle. Finally the free-flowing sound stopped – and then, after a couple of seconds, it started again. That made the audience howl. After all, which of us hasn’t had that experience in real life?
We’ll undoubtedly see Kalukango do the same, but let us be grateful that while that aforementioned gunshot made it to the original cast albumof The Wild Party, this specific sound did not.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.mtishows.com and www.kritzerland.com and each Monday at www.broadwayselect.com. His book The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at www.amazon.com.