Wasn’t That a Party?

Epic poems. They have a long and stored place as inspiration for theatre, probably going back to Homer, which was the inspiration for Broadway’s The Golden Apple, among other things. Be it Beowolf (which not only inspired a musical, but a horrible piece of rotoscoping) or Goethe’s Faust (the inspiration for Randy Newman’s Faust), long poems are inspiration for theatre. I mention this because in 1999, an epic poem served as inspiration for not one but two musicals. The poem was “The Wild Party”, written by Joseph Moncure March in 1928, and rediscovered by Art Spiegelman in 1994. The musicals were both titled “The Wild Party”: one was written by Andrew Lippa and premiered in 2000 Off-Broadway; the other was written by Michael John LaChiusa and premiered in 2000 on Broadway. I’ve long had the CDs for both versions. Last night we saw the latter version in a production by the Malibu Stage Company.

This poem tells the story of the vaudeville performer Queenie, her lover Burrs, and the wild party she threw one night in the late 1920s. It begins with the classic lines:

Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville

From there we learn about Queenie, a fading vaudeville chorine, and her misogynist and borderline racist lover Burrs, a vaudeville comic who performs in blackface. They decide to throw a wild party, complete with bathtub gin, debauchery, and everything that makes life worth living. During this party, we meet Queenie and Burrs’ collection of friends: Kate, Queenie’s conniving rival—a dagger-tongued, former chorine and would-be star; Jackie, a cocaine-sniffing bisexual playboy; Eddie, a washed-up boxer; Eddie’s wife, Mae, a ditzy former chorine; Nadine, Mae’s excitable 14 year old niece (who claims to be 16) who wants to break into vaudeville; Phil and Oscar D’Armano, a black brother act; Dolores Montoya, a diva of indeterminate age and infinite life experience; Miss Madeline True, a lesbian actress and nearly famous stripper; Sally, Madeline’s comatose girlfriend; Gold and Goldberg, two vaudeville producers with Broadway ambitions; and Black, Kate’s date and a bargain basement moocher. As the party escalates, we learn the story of each of these characters, and see the debauchery that was the 1920s. We’re treated to adultery, bisexuality, cocaine, drinking, incest, rape. It is a circus on stage, with action taking place on every corner. As the jazz and the gin flow, the orgy starts, and by the end of the evening, the midnight debauchery leads to destroyed lives. Ultimately, in the light of morning, comes the reminder that those who fly high land with a thud, especially when the mask and artificial face we put out to the world is removed.

The Malibu Stage Company did a reasonably good job with this production. As it started, I was unsure: some of the performers seemed a little amateurish or too old for the role, but as they warmed up and I got into the story, that made sense. These weren’t young vaudevillians in their prime; these were aging performers who had been worn down by the vaudeville life, trying to preserve their youth in any way they could. As such, the actors and the characters grew on me and I became fascinated with trying to watch these people and learn about them. Credit goes to the director, Julia Holland, assisted by Marti Maniates, who kept the action going everywhere on the set: it was literally a circus on the stage with numerous things and actions to watch and story unfolding everywhere. This was a wild party on stage.

The actors were not slouches either (and looking back at who I particularly liked, you could really tell the Equity folks). In the leading character positions were Krista Suttonæ as Queenie and Casey Zemanæ at Burrs. Krista was just spectacular: she embodied Queenie in movement, in style, and most importantly for me, in facial expression. She gave off the impression as somone who simulatanously loved to party, but was also tired of the party life and the work it took. She was older but beautiful; someone who loved hard and had the experience to love spectacularly. This all came across in Krista’s performance. Casey’s Burrs was powerful in a different way: he was a fierce man with strong passions. This was a man that was capable of violence. He wanted to party, but he wanted Queenie for himself. In Casey’s performance you could see the artiface come down as the liquor came out. Both were spectacular.

The party guests were also fascinating to watch. There were a number who just drew my eye whenever they were the focus of attention. The first was Danni Katzæ as Nadine, the naive 14 16 year old. Katz was a spectacular tap dancer, and did a great job of portraying someone who started out innocent, got drawn into the debauchery, and ended up with more than she could handle. As her Aunt Mae, Leslie Beauvaisæ gave a great performance as the former chorine who gave up her life to marry a famous boxer. As that boxer, Eddie, Oscar Best exuded power both in performance and voice. Zack DiLiberto was strong as Black, a pretty young man using his looks and his talents with women to get ahead in the world. I also enjoyed the acting of the two producer, Gold and Goldberg, portrayed by Lenny Goldsmith and Richard Johnsonæ, respectively. These two did an excellent job of providing the view of the non-partying crowd; their reactions to the party as it drew them in mirrored the reactions of the audience.

The remainder of the party guests were all well performed, but stuck out less individually in my mind. As Kate, Charleene Clossheyæ portrayed the rival to Queenie and date of Black, who seemed to have been the embodiment of the current term frenemy. As Queenie says, “Keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer”. Brent Moon portrayed Jackie, the bisexual debonair playboy addicted to cocaine. Pam Duke-Van Ierland was Miss Madeline True, the fading stripper, with Bonnie Frank as Sally, her comatose lesbian date. Danny DeLloyd and Wallace DeMarria portrayed Phil and Oscar D’Armano, a vaudeville brother performing team. Lastly, Susan Kohleræ portrayed Delores, another aging vaudeville performer who wanted to be back on the stage, and seduced Gold and Goldberg to get her way.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Rick Friend served as musical director, and led the 5-piece onstage band, which provided great music. Natalie Rubenstein choreographed the piece, providing period-appropriate dances and continuous movement.

Turning to the technical side: The set (designed by Diane Hertz and Kim Brown) captured the period well, including the decadance of using jars for the gin and the glasses. The costumes by Shon LeBlanc of Valentino’s Costumes were appropriately period (although I expected them to be a bit more revealing), but they didn’t seem to cooperate as the actors expected. Beverly Heusser did the makeup and hair: I liked the hairstyles (especially Queenie’s, which was done by Julia Blanchette) and Natalie’s), but there was a little too much glitter for my taste.

More problematic were the sound and lights. Although they had a new sound system (donated by Dick Van Dyke), the sound was off: at times (especially in the beginning) the sound was muffled and sounded distant. Perhaps the sound engineer, Murray Shaw, is still tuning the system. The static lighting, designed by Ryan Wandler, was pretty good, but there were numerous problems with the follow spot: it kept missing the actors it was intended to light, and kept moving in odd distracting ways.

The production was produced by Diane Peterson and Julia Holland, assisted by Jeremy Johnson. David Yardley was stage manager, assisted by Caitland Smuin. The artistic director of Malbu Stage Company is Richard Johnson.

Michael John LaChiusa’s “The Wild Party continues at Malibu Stage Company until December 5, 2010. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tix or by calling the box office at (310) 589-1998. Tickets are also available via Goldstar Events. Malibu Stage Company is located 700 yards west of the intersection of Kanan Dume Road and PCH, just off of PCH.

Dining Notes: We had dinner at Coral Beach Cantina, which was near the theatre. Simple but good Mexican food, without the Malibu foodie prices.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. This evening brings our last November show: Randy Newman’s Harps and Angels” at the Mark Taper Forum (ticketed for Saturday November 27). December will bring Uptown, Downtown” starring Leslie Uggams at the Pasadena Playhouse on December 11, Next to Normal” at the Ahmanson on December 18, and for Karen and Ern, West Side Story” at the Pantages Theatre on December 24 (I’m not interested in that particular production, especially at Pantages prices).

Looking briefly into 2011: January is mostly open with only Tom Paxton at McCabes ticketed for my birthday, January 21. February will bring the first show of the REP 2011 season, “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” (pending ticketing for February 5), followed by The Marvellous Wonderettes” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on February 12; Rock of Ages” at the Pantages on February 19. February closes with Moonlight and Magnoliasat the Colony Theatre on February 26. March is also mostly open right now, although March 26 is being held for The Diary of Anne Frank” at REP East. Of course, I learn of interesting shows all the time, so expect additions to this schedule.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.