An air of curiosity and expectation was in the air at the opening of Andrew Lippa’s THE WILD PARTY at South Portland’s Portland Players. The 1997 musical with book, music and lyrics by Lippa is not a familiar piece for many musical theatre audiences. What they experienced in a little over two hours, created in the searing vision of director/choreographer Raymond Marc Dumont, was a theatre piece that is difficult, disturbing, and absolutely brilliant!
At the beginning and end of the piece which is set in a New York City apartment in the 1920s, Queenie sings that there are “no limits, no boundaries, no compromises,” and indeed, this is the careening roller coaster ride on which this taut, dense, psychologically complex, lacerating, yet often wickedly funny jazz opera takes its audience, who cling to the edge of their seats throughout.
Lippa based his through-composed piece on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, expanding the story lines and mining the syncopated rhythms of the text. The Wild Party tells the tale of an alcohol and cocaine-fueled party at the home of the two central characters, Queenie and her abusive lover Burrs. Tensions between the couple simmer from the first and spill over into a nightmarish trip through desire, obsession, guilt, anger, recriminations, and violence. From the very first scene where Burrs bitterly toys with a carving knife in the shabby apartment kitchen, one knows where this will lead. Yet, along the way Lippa weaves in many other characters’ stories that both complement and counterpoint that of Queenie and Burrs, painting a rich emotional tapestry. The jazz-inspired score, which is almost entirely sung-through, is similarly filled with light and shade, numerous concerted passages, multi-textured harmonies syncopated rhythms and the occasional poignant ballad. The few moments of speech rend the musical fabric, delivering striking moments of punctuation.
In director/choreographer Raymond Marc Dumont’s hands the work becomes unsparingly honest, brutally provocative, and yet, somehow, wrenchingly moving. Dumont, who has previously demonstrated in Portland his affinity for similarly complex musical-dramatic works such as Into the Woods, Cabaret, or Grey Gardens, creates a compelling music-drama that never shies away from the risks, but inspires the actors’ and audience’s trust. Among his many talents is the ability to take a large ensemble (18) and paint a stage picture that is both panoramic and detailed. In a show in which everyone is on stage almost all the time, Dumont eschews the notion of freezing the action among the ensemble members while the principals sing or play out scenes. Instead, every moment for every character is filled with colorful detail, so that each of the individual stories adds itself potently to the cumulative effect. Moreover, he is a gifted choreographer who creates dance moments that are stunningly intricate, and he is able to impart an overall sense of kinetic movement to the cast. But perhaps what Dumont has done best here is to create an atmosphere of trust among the ensemble that permits the actors to take the plunge and reach for the soul-baring moments that make The Wild Party so thrilling. The hair-raising last five minutes of the play alone in which the inevitable tensions come to a tragic boil, is unforgettable theatre!
Music Director Evan Cuddy shapes the tricky score with a firm hand, leading the seven-person jazz ensemble from the keyboards, and he elicits strong vocal performances from the entire cast. John Sundling has designed a striking set to span the wide stage: the skeletal framework of a building layered with gray-brown planking, arranged haphazardly to leave great gaps behind which the musicians play in front of a blue cyclorama. The seediness of the place is captured in the dilapidated bedroom and grungy bathroom which flank the stage, and the multi-tiered levels allow for the brisk flow of action. Michaela Denoncourt provides a kinetic lighting design that highlights the shifts in the action and almost musically underscores the psychological drama. (Only caveat was an inadequately lit stage right in the opening moments of the play.) Louise Keezer’s costumes smartly evoke the Jazz Age, while sound designer Samuele Rinaldi makes effective use of the theatre’s upgraded system (a huge improvement, though still not without a bit of a dull acoustic) to create an exciting mix.
The cast is comprised of some of the best actors working in Maine. Rachel Lotstein is a sultry, sure-voiced Queenie – manipulative and moving at the same time. Cliff Fantigrossi, as her troubled lover Burrs, delivers a heart-rending performance of a man torn between laughter and tears, addiction and aspiration, violence and tenderness, and he portrays Burrs’ agonizing, spiraling descent with uncompromising honesty. Alison Bogannan uses her powerful vocal resources and imposing stage presence to give the former hooker Kate just the right mix of pathetic longing and vindictiveness, while Tommy Waltz provides the perfect contrast to all this sordidness in his gentle, hauntingly mesmerizing interpretation of Black.
The fourteen supporting characters each tells his own intense story. Cameron Wright as Eddie and Hannah Perry as Mae make a charmingly dim, but touchingly well-paired couple; Jennine Canizzo delivers a well-etched and sung characterization of Madelaine True, whose number, “An Old-Fashioned Love Story” about her lesbian longings is a show-stopper. The impressive dancing of Keith Nadeau helps to anchor the choreography and offer an introspective moment in the ballet near the finale. Gregory Judd (Oscar D’Armano) and Paul Jesus McIntosh (Phil D’Armano) enjoy a solo as the singing brothers. Rounding out the cast with fine contributions are Megan Bremermann (*e), Andrea Carr (Sally), Emily Davis (Dolores), Kelly Mosher (Nadine), Taylor Gervais (Max), Christopher Gray (Gold) Tess McLaughlin (Rosie), and Alex Pease (Sam).
Portland Players’ Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party offers an evening of exciting musical-dramatic surprises, as well as a chance to marvel at the depth of creative talent in the area. That Portland Players’ and Raymond Marc Dumont have been willing to tackle this dark, powerful, moving material has surely been a huge risk, but one which yields immeasurable rewards for those who are willing to join the ride.
Photos courtesy Portland Players, Brandon Pullen, photographer; Tommy Waltz (montage)
Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party runs from May 20 – June 5, 2016 at Portland Players, 420 Cottage Rd., South Portland, ME 04106 www.portlandplayers. org 207-799-7337