Voices soar, but staging stalls in ‘The Wild Party,’ a Prohibition-era production at Blank Canvas Theatre
By Bob Abelman
“Some love is fire: some love is rust/But the fiercest, cleanest love is lust.”
So begins Joseph Moncure March’s seedy, Jazz Age narrative poem “The Wild Party,” on which Andrew Lippa’s lyrical musical of the same name is based.
Both lure you into a Prohibition-era world that reeks of cheap perfume, gin-saturated sweat and raging pheromones. The dark and ominous musical, whose 2000 Off-Broadway run garnered Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Obie awards, does so with a brilliant and boozy score. It is currently on display at Blank Canvas Theatre.
The play’s action takes place in a steamy Manhattan apartment where vampish vaudeville performer Queenie (an alluring and accessible Trinidad Snider) throws a decadent all-night party to test the mettle of her brutal boyfriend Burrs (Patrick Ciamacco in full brooding mode), who is a vaudevillian clown with a voracious appetite for women.
Among the eclectic guests, including ensemble members Curt Arnold, Emma Beekman, Joel Fenstermaker, Richie Gagen, Kevin Kelly, BJ Colangelo and Sidney Perelman, is friend and former prostitute Kate (Neely Gevaart), who shows up with a newfound boy-toy, Mr. Black (Nathan Tolliver). He takes an immediate shine to the hostess. It is reciprocated by Queenie.
As revenge, the coke-snorting Kate seduces Burrs. The drugs, drink and rampant lust spark a dangerous love quadrilateral that inspires a musical score with jazz-infused period tunes — such as the ensemble number “A Wild Wild Party,” Queenie’s “Out of the Blue” and Kate’s “Life of the Party — as well as more contemporary Broadway ballads and belters, including Queenie’s “Raise the Roof,” Burr’s “What is it About Her” and Mr. Black’s “I’ll Be Here.”
The show also has its share of vaudevillian-esque novelty songs for comic relief, such as “An Old-Fashioned Love Story” sung by the lesbian stripper Madelaine True (a delightful Kate Eskut) and “Two of a Kind” with thuggish boxer Eddie and his petite girlfriend Mae (a winning Zac Hudak and Betsy Kahl).
Like the characters themselves, the music is diverse and often dissonant (think Fosse meets Brecht), offers complex and dramatic key-changes, and has moments that approach atonality which foreshadow the strong likelihood that things will not end well for anyone.
It is the performance of this music that is Blank Canvas’ strength and salvation, for the show’s staging does much to undermine this production.
With Ciamacco doing double duty as Burrs and the show’s director, the production values lack attention to detail and an artistic vision beyond mere functionality. The apartment, also designed by Ciamacco, is inauthentic and woefully unimaginative. Cory Molner’s lighting design fails to facilitate the play’s dark palette, decadent overtones, and mood swings. And the sound design, which is understandably not attributed to anyone, too frequently cancels out vocals in favor of the orchestra.
Fortunately, the six-piece orchestra under Ian Huettel’s direction is outstanding and the vocals that come through during the quieter show tunes are jaw-dropping. While not everyone on stage seems to be living in the 1920s, living in the moment, or capable of executing Katie Zarecki’s high-energy and always interesting period choreography with necessary grace and abandon, everyone is in top voice and sells each and every song like they own it.
Snider as Queenie, Ciamacco as Burrs, Gevaart as Kate and Tolliver as Mr. Black are truly exceptional vocal talents. Their solo numbers are astounding. But the Act I duet between Burrs and Queenie in “What Is It About Her,” the Act II duet between Mr. Black and Queenie in “Come With Me,” and the four-part harmonies delivered by these four featured actors in “Poor Child” and “Listen to Me” represent some of the best musical performances seen on a Cleveland stage.
While Gevaart and Tolliver still seem to be searching for their characters, such is not the case with Snider and Ciamacco, who are mesmeric. So are Hudak, Kahl, Justin Woody and Liz Woodard, who do much of the featured dancing and add much of the ambient decadence that is so important to this musical. In all likelihood, it is their cheap perfume, gin-saturated sweat, and raging pheromones that linger in the cramped performance space.
The lingering on the night of my attendance was due to a lack of air circulation and conditioning in the theater. While steamy and sticky are not ideal conditions in which to see musical theater, it sure works to the benefit of “The Wild Party.”
If you go, and go you should, choose a night with a high relative humidity. CV
WHAT: “The Wild Party”
WHERE: Blank Canvas Theatre, 1305 W. 78th St., Cleveland
WHEN: Through June 4
TICKETS & INFO: $18, call 440-941-0458 or visit blankcanvastheatre.com.
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman.3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on May 27, 2016.
Lead image: Patrick Ciamacco plays a vaudevillian clown with a voracious appetite for women. PHOTO | Andy Dudik