Manhattan Theatre Club offers the first installment of a unique phenomenon: two major musicals, soon to be concurrent, both derived from a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, The Wild Party. At MTC, The Wild Party has book, music, and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, remembered favorably for his additional songs and arrangements for the recent You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
The problem with this show about a wild party given in 1929 by a pair of vaudevillians, a clown and a dancer whose crumbling affair is to be revivified by a bacchanal, is that a stage work cannot readily proceed from one thing to another in linear fashion like a poem: It has to keep the populous partyers in simultaneous sight, occupied with this or that. Cinematically put, you have to shoot at once in close-up and with a wide-angle lens. Theatrical history is littered with the corpses of attempts at this sort of thing.
Matters are further complicated by the period. The music has to be jazz-age but also, to avoid pastiche, contemporary. Moreover, new song lyrics have to blend in with the original’s narrative verse, preserved in unavoidable spoken passages. Most troubling, both the old poem and the new lyrics tend toward the level of “Let me drown in females foreign, / Let me dangle from a limb; / Teach me how to put my oar in, / But don’t you dare to teach me how to swim.” Or, worse yet, “Like a member of the pack, / I ramble; / Like a ledger in the black, / I gamble.”
The story comes down to a quadrangle. The clown, Burrs, bored after a three-year cohabitation, cannot let go of the dancer, Queenie, who, though unhappy, cannot overcome inertia and leave. He still brutalizes, she still endures. The party guests include Kate, an ex-whore risen in station, and her escort, the spiffy Mr. Black, actually a club doorman, who promptly goes for Queenie, as she, by and by, does for him. Kate vainly tries to seduce Burrs, who’s jealously eager to recapture Queenie. It all ends in curiously unaffecting bloodshed.
Lippa’s music, though idiomatic, is not rich in melody, depending largely on rhythm and harmony. Yet after periods of waffling, it can achieve moments of moody or sprightly tunefulness, even if mostly in novelty numbers rather than in integrated, character-developing ones. Typical is the bouncy lesbian’s ironic “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” zestily delivered by Alix Korey.
David Gallo has designed an open platform with jazzy floor patterns that can split into two to five unequal, jagged sections on which groups or individuals are suggestively stranded. In the zigzagging gaps between sections, processions of revelers can parade in hectic merriment. The platform is surrounded on three sides by façades of buildings ominously leaning toward center stage; a few sticks of furniture create, as the floor reconfigures itself, different constellations.
Kenneth Posner’s lighting throws additional jazzy patterns on the floor, catches groups in skewering lateral beams, or encloses individuals in a cage of light as sheaves of separate white or colored rays hurtle from above. Martin Pakledinaz’s costuming is jauntily fantastical, but here a prevailing inconsistency becomes objectified as the initially weirdly expressionist costumes turn bohemianly realistic. Consistently fine are Michael Gibson’s orchestrations: bluesy, funky, boisterous, or dwindling to single melancholy instruments, always firmly supportive of the action.
Under Gabriel Barre’s intelligent direction, the ensemble work is solid and the four principals realize their less-than-ample opportunities. Julia Murney’s Queenie is a compelling flapper fatale, Brian d’Arcy James’s Burrs, as described, “a very scary clown”; both sing winningly. As Mr. Black, Taye Diggs is by turns restrained and commanding, but the show is stolen by the ebullient Idina Menzel’s Kate, a veritable geyser of vitality. Mark Dendy’s choreography is better in acrobatic solos than in unified group numbers, which lack diversity; Lawrence Keigwin’s acrobatic dancing, though, is exhilarating. The excitement is mostly in the production values; even so, this Wild Party never bogs down for too long.