The band is blowing, the hooch is flowing, and the guests are lit. But Constellation Theatre’s new production of The Wild Party (★★½) doesn’t lift off to the heights it should, in order to fully convey the dizzying descent and devastating impact when the party comes crashing down.
As surely as the stock market crash brought the curtain down on the Roaring ’20s, a bloody end does come to the swell party at the center of this Jazz Age musical from 1999, based on the eponymous narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. The publication of March’s poem presaged the Great Depression by over a year, yet somehow perfectly captured the precipitous decline of a golden era in its story of Queenie and Burrs, two high-living lovers brought low by pride and jealousy.
Featuring a book, music, and lyrics by Andrew Lippa (Big Fish), The Wild Party presents the Queenie and Burrs romance as a straightforward drama of lust and angst, infused by an electrifying jazz-influenced score.
The music is as hot as ever in Constellation’s production, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, and musical director Walter “Bobby” McCoy leads a swinging seven-piece band through the rag, rumba, and blues of Lippa’s stylistically varied, emotionally evocative tunes. Meanwhile, choreographer Ilona Kessell, a Helen Hayes nominee for her work on Constellation’s 2016 production of Urinetown, puts the ensemble through their vigorous paces with toe-tapping, tightly synchronized jumping and jiving that does its share to keep the party lifted. Costume designer Erik Teague has outfitted the cast in snazzy period suits and flapper gowns that generously complement all that jazz stepping. And Tony Cisek’s sets, while beautifully concealing the bandstand, create an environment somewhere between a speakeasy and grandma’s basement that feels just right.
Where the party sags is in the middle, with a lead foursome who are two players shy of a solid quartet. As Queenie, the hostess, Farrell Parker swaggers and stares with a glint in her eye that befits this doyenne of the free-and-easy bohemian scene. But her tart demeanor falters in song, and, although the show supplies Queenie with a few party-starting numbers, Parker’s interpretations don’t really raise the roof.
A vaudeville hoofer intent on serving a public comeuppance to her rough-handed lover Burrs, Queenie should come on like a minx hiding a dagger behind her back. Yet, Parker’s Queenie feels neither dangerous nor aggrieved enough to twist the knife as willfully as she does in her efforts to make her man suffer. Partly, that seems due to the scant onstage connection between Parker and Jimmy Mavrikes, as the sad clown Burrs.
Queenie and Burrs are a couple bound particularly by their intense sexual chemistry, and that sort of combustion doesn’t register here. Mavrikes sings and broods with passion, however, adding an undercurrent of dark unpredictability that helps drive suspense, as the sex and gin-soaked party builds to its climax.
Long before that, and even before the first act closes, the fabulous Kari Ginsburg’s entrance as Kate, a boozy, bedraggled partygoer who lusts after Burrs, is a climax unto itself, with the actress bursting onstage to perform “Look at Me Now.” A rousing force of talent, tenderness, and moxie, Ginsburg shifts the gravity onstage, projecting a maturity of experience that’s mostly missing from the other members of this uniformly young cast. Few in the cast convey scars of life as surely as Ginsburg. Where her Kate has been and where she’s going is of far more compelling interest than whether Queenie will steal away the handsome stranger who accompanies Kate to the party, the mysterious Mr. Black.
The fourth in this unbalanced love quadrangle, Mr. Black appears as this wild party’s It Boy, the beautiful face and form that enchants everyone in attendance — with perhaps the exception of licentious lesbian Madeline (a wonderful Rachel Barlaam). Unfortunately, neither Black, nor Lippa’s excellent songs for him, are done any service by Ian Anthony Coleman’s unpersuasive vocal performance.
Whatever mysteries Black might be hiding, there’s barely a hint of a past life in Coleman’s characterization. Luckily for the audience, there are plenty other intriguing guests worth meeting, and the shindig doesn’t ride completely on Queenie deciding to bet it all on Black.
The Wild Party runs until October 29th at Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $55. Call 202-204-7741, or visit ConstellationTheatre.org.
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