What a fiasco, this second, Broadway version of The Wild Party! It makes the middling Off Broadway one look, in retrospect, like a masterpiece. (Had Andrew Lippa’s version opened second, it might still be running.) From music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa, and a book by him and George C. Wolfe, we get a second take on the trashy late-twenties narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, doggerel that should have been let lie by both.
The two versions are fairly different, but not enough to make us seek out the moldering original poem. This much is true of both WPII and WPI: Burrs, the ominous clown, and Queenie, the promiscuous showgirl, are sparring spouses; to bring about peace, they give a party to which they invite all the demimondains they know. WPII conceives this as a vaudeville entertainment with placards heralding each scene, further cheapening the cheesy proceedings.
WPI at least had some semblance of a story line; WPII is almost all random incidents that refuse to mesh. In both versions, a courtesan named Kate brings along a somewhat mysterious Mr. Black who becomes involved with Queenie, while Burrs fools around with Kate; finally, a gun is pulled, and someone gets killed. Both versions also feature a comic lesbian, but only this one has two comic Jews, Gold and Goldberg, two would-be producers. And here, Burrs is a blackface clown; in WPI, he was a whiteface one.
WPII does have an asset in Eartha Kitt, but what this amazing crone prodigy contributes is her own story unrelated to the show. As Burrs, Mandy Patinkin does some super-creepy things with grating falsetto and clumsy audience participation. He is as diabolic as he is over-the-top – call it deviled ham. The excellent Tonya Pinkins is hamstrung by her role as Kate, and the macho Black, cast in WPI as a sexy black, is here an effete ephebe. As Queenie, Toni Collette, in an anachronistic Monroe wig, works hard and deserves our sympathy.
WPI had terrific sets and lighting, nowhere near matched here. Lamest of all is George C. Wolfe’s direction, followed closely by Joey McKneely’s choreography. LaChiusa’s songs come off quite well as pastiche, although one misses some sort of ballad. All in all, I cannot imagine the most desperate gate-crasher wanting to be caught dead at this party.