Hit List, Part One: The Wild Party and Parade

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bailiwick the wild partyWhen I first started seriously going to the theater in Chicago way back when in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, full-blooded musical productions outside of the avowed musical theater specialists such as Drury Lane, Marriott, and Porchlight were as rare as intelligence and attractiveness on Fox News. Chicago’s theater companies loved (and continue to love) their sweaty, gritty, chair-breaking, nerve-popping dramatic plays that defined the supposed “Chicago-style” of theater acting. Over the years though, things have evolved, so much so that some of the best shows I saw this year were musicals – a happy development for this self-identified musical theater diva who will belt out “Cabaret” at the least provocation (if you want to hear my killer karaoke version, invite me out to the Korean karaoke bars on Lincoln some evening). Interestingly, there’s been a bevy of musical productions this fall theater season; I saw three of them consecutively in the past week. In this two part blog post, I talk about the first two: Bailiwick Chicago’s generally successful take on Michael John LaChuisa’s The Wild Party, based on Joseph Moncure March’s long narrative poem about lusting, boozing, fighting among sexually-ambiguous boys and girls in 1920s New York City, and BoHo Theatre’s less successful staging of Jason Robert Brown’s gorgeously-scored Parade, based on the real-life story of Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil superintendent accused of murder in early twentieth-century Atlanta.

There are two musical soundtracks of The Wild Party circling through theater queens’ Spotify playlists from shows which both premiered, strangely enough, in New York during the 1999-2000 season; LaChuisa’s take with book by LaChuisa and the Public Theater’s former Artistic Director George C. Wolfe which was produced on Broadway is generally considered to be the stronger one (although one of my favorite showtunes of all time, “Raise the Roof” is in the Andrew Lippa version which was staged off-Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club).  March’s poem The Wild Party is indeed about that – a no-holds-barred, no-limits-defined, overnight-spanning party at the New York City apartment of two vaudeville “stars”, Queenie, a dancer, and her lover Burrs, a clown, set sometime during Prohibition.  Lots of morally-ambiguous characters come in and out of their apartment throughout the evening, with tragedy striking as dawn skies break over Manhattan. March’s poem contained everything including the kitchen sink, from cocaine-use to multiple sexual partners to rape to violence and cruelty, which the musical’s book vividly, potently portrays. Admittedly, we’ve seen all of these before in portrayals of the Prohibition period in film and theater, but it’s still riveting primarily because LaChuisa’s score is fantastic- sexy and bombastic, yet at the same time clearly evoking the various characters’ amorality, desperation, and insecurities. Queenie is a particularly fascinating character, delusional in her desirability and stardom (a delusion quickly picked apart when her frenemy Kate, a much bigger headliner than she is, arrives at the party) yet also full of loneliness and self-destructive naiveté, a girl who knows but can’t quite admit she’s never going to be good enough. Danni Smith is spectacular in the role, sexy-combustible, sad-pathetic. And her full-bodied, deeply-emotional singing (which I last enjoyed in Sondheim’s Passion at Theo Ubique early this year, where her intensely-focused Fosca was the best thing in a tepid production) continues to be a marvel.

Smith is so overwhelmingly good that she needs the two actors playing Queenie’s love interests, the ready-to-snap Burr, played by Matthew Keffer, and the male hustler she falls for Black, played by Patrick Falcon, to be at her level. Although both good singers, especially Keffer, they can barely hold their own against Smith. Falcon has Black’s good looks, but doesn’t fully capture his oily persuasive charm, coming across as a too-cool altar boy among these giddy hedonists.  Keffer’s Burr is particularly problematic; he is supposed to be as delusional as Queenie (he doesn’t realize that the producers aren’t taking him when they move the vaudeville production uptown) and slightly unhinged, but his Burr mostly stays in the background acting more like a non-descript bartender until the final scene, and lets the scene-stealing ensemble take the spotlight. Granted, it’s a pretty exceptional ensemble, with Danielle Brothers’ conniving, tart-tongued aging actress desperate for a comeback towering over everyone. Brenda Didier’s solid, somewhat exaggerated direction gives this ensemble every opportunity to shine.

BoHo Theatre’s Parade has more noble intentions than The Wild Party.  In 1914 Atlanta, the Northern transplant Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of a pencil manufacturing plant, is accused of murdering one of his female teenage workers; he is convicted and given the death penalty but when the Governor of Georgia, through the tireless lobbying of Frank’s wife Lucille, commutes his sentence to life imprisonment, a mob of Atlanta citizens kidnap Frank from prison and hang him. It is a very potent topic for a musical, tackling anti-Semitism and Southern racial politics (the witness whose testimony convicts Frank is an African-American worker who makes a deal with the white prosecutor). Unfortunately, Alfred Uhry’s book tempers these volatile but important plot elements by focusing on the relationship between Leo and Lucille, evolving from a marriage that is starting to display cracks to a relationship of unbounded love and loyalty.  Which is partly the reason why I think Parade, despite Jason Robert Brown’s dizzyingly varied and hauntingly written score (“All The Wasted Time”, Leo and Lucille’s eleventh hour love anthem, is imho one of the best songs written for recent American musical theater), has a distancing quality to it. But Linda Fortunato’s production though literally drains whatever is remaining of the life blood of the piece. I’m not sure where the problem lies – in the workmanlike, at times cluttered, blocking perhaps? In the clunky set changes required for Patrick Ham’s visually austere but multi-purpose set design? In Brian Hoehne’s monotonous lighting design in which emotional scenes such as Leo and Lucille’s jailhouse encounters are pretty much lighted in the same way as the rest of the scenes, from Governor’s party to court room? Can it be in the ensemble’s well-sung, but seemingly restrained performances? This is a play that is partly about anti-Semitism and bigotry but the acting never gets you riled up. There is a conspicuous lack of danger and fire in the performances. I’ve admired Jim DeSelm in many, many shows, but his Leo seems too cerebral and removed. If Leo isn’t fired up with the injustice of his situation, how can we be too? Scott Danielson’s prosecutor Dorsey, the seeming villain of the piece, comes off as courtly Southern restaurant owner than intolerant lawyer bending the law to advance his bigotry. Sarah Bockel’s Lucille emphasizes Mrs.  Frank’s stand-by-my-man traits and we see little of her desperation and anger, which can also be a function of the character as written (if my husband is going to die for a crime he didn’t commit, wouldn’t I be figuratively and literally trying to wake up Atlanta’s civil war dead with my actions, words, and anguished wailings?).  It’s a shame because Parade’s score, traipsing through various musical genres from blues to jazz to Southern hymns to pop power ballads, has some of the best songs in Brown’s oeuvre.

The Wild Party closes this Saturday, November 1, at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N.Lincoln Ave.  Parade is running until November 17 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.

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