We often hear the term “style over substance” as a means to disregard something that uses elegance to seemingly improve itself while the actual meat of the piece is lacking in clarity or wit. However, in show business oftentimes the style becomes the substance. Be it now or decades ago, audiences are attracted to a flashy persona that draws the eye. That’s not to say there is no substance underneath the glitz, but the glamour is what the public focuses on. What happens then when the stylish strip themselves of their onstage elegance? What we’ll find are people, flawed and broken just like the rest of us.
The Wild Party, based on the poem of the same name by John Moncure March, is a musical that follows the volatile Vaudevillian couple, Queenie and Burrs, as they decide to throw a big party in their small apartment. The guest list is packed with stars of the 1920s stage, each with a delightful persona of their own, but as the liquor continues to pour the farce of their lives crumbles to reveal the petty, angry, and vicious people they really are.
Director Cara Phipps certainly had a challenge in blocking her fifteen-person cast in the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre’s arena stage, with the audience on all sides of the stage. With the vast majority of the play taking place at the titular party with the full cast onstage, Phipps was successful in drawing the audience’s attention to the proper locations onstage while every other actor remains in character, milling and drinking about the stage. However, the blocking often left scenes, conversations, and key exchanges blocked by other cast members. Honestly, I’m still impressed that we were able to see as much of the play as we could considering the size of the cast. Blocking aside, Phipps clearly has a firm grasp on the showmanship and faux euphoria pervasive through the era of Vaudeville. Every character is believable as both a performer and a broken spirit, each one acting appropriately as they continually mingle with their fellow partygoers.
With a cast of fifteen characters it’s only inevitable that some receive more prevalence then others. From the very first song (“Queenie was a Blonde”) it’s evident that the cacophony to come will focus mainly on Queenie (Emma Center) a Vaudeville showgirl and co-host of the party. Center carries herself with a natural sense of glamour, always cool and elegant despite the ugliness supporting Queenie’s life. As a vocalist she sang beautifully, but her acting felt awkward, as if she were unaware of the troubles arising in her party. Trey Curtis as boxer Eddie Mackrel and Devin Medley as his wife Mae had decent onstage chemistry particularly during their duet (“Eddie and Mae”) which was a fun and charming number. Much of the rest of the cast gave good performances but didn’t have a lot of stage time dedicated to them, notably Caroline Kinnamore as the near-catatonic Sally, or were written as one-note characters, such as Emily McIntyre as the young, innocent, and naïve partygoer Nadine whose introduction all but literally announces the words “Incoming loss of innocence”. Both sang beautifully and were entertaining in their own rights, but the authors unfortunately did not feel the need to expand their roles.
However, not every cast member gave the strongest performance. Cosme Flores Jr and Nyles Washington as the D’Armano Brothers were a fun double act but had trouble projecting and enunciating both while speaking and singing. As a result they felt lackluster and stock. Furthermore, Toni Baker as the aging Dolores Montoya seemed to only fill the role of older performer on her way out. She maintained a sense of glamour and elegance throughout, but she never seemed to evolve beyond that basic state. But aside from all of that, the one clear standout of the show is Christopher Montalvo as Burrs, the sinister minstrel performer and Queenie’s abusive lover and co-host. From his first two appearances onstage, firstly fully engaged in an energetic minstrel show (yes, complete with blackface makeup) and secondly as a brute who defuses a threat on his life (made by Queenie of course) by insisting they throw a wild party, it is evident that Montalvo is not a man with a short fuse and a hazy sense of morality. Throughout the performance Montalvo sports a perpetual angry brown, always on edge, and waiting to blow up at any moment. Unlike the rest of the cast who slowly drop their delightful façades throughout, Montalvo arguably gives the most genuine performance for he begins the production at the level of raw anger and grief that he pulls everyone else down to with his healthy supply of bathtub gin. Furthermore, his delightful and rancorous performance of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” was easily one of my favorite songs in the entire show, as he blends his stage presence and bitterness into a spiteful performance that I found enjoyable while concurrently thinking “Wow what a bastard” in the best way possible.
The Wild Party is a musical so naturally it’s going to have a fair share of glitz and glamour of its own. Bruno-Pierre Houle’s scenic design was sparse but effective. With only a few simple furnishings (a couch, a piano, some trunks, a bed, etc.) Houle created the illusion of a claustrophobic apartment while allowing the cast enough room to interact with one another. Adding onto the set, Jared LeClaire’s projections upon the screens surrounding the audience aided in establishing the locations excellently while maintaining the 1920s vibe. Lighting designer Andrew Carson skillfully flowed back and forth between the warm lighting of the apartment, and the ecstatic colors of show business during the musical numbers, though he had a nasty habit (mostly during the first half of the production) of ending many songs with the lights cutting to a new configuration for the applause followed by a soft fade back to the calm lights of reality. The effect works with some numbers, especially those that are more energetic, but when every number ends with it the effect becomes more of a distracting gimmick.
With all of that said, this production has one fatal flaw that was a continual hindrance from the first song all the way to the finale, and that’s sound projection. Without context it sounds inconsequential, I know, but most of my frustration during the production came from its sound equipment. The opening number showcased the biggest concern with the sound which was the cast’s constant battle to be heard over the ensemble. Don’t get me wrong, the musical accompaniment conducted by Lyn Koenning was beautiful and finely-tuned, but they often drowned out the vocals. I understood very little of the chorus in “Queenie was a Blonde” which wasn’t the finest start to the production. Furthermore, because the speakers were located high above the center of the stage, characters lines often felt disconnected, with their voices projecting from high above while their lips seem to simply mouth along with the disembodied audio. Paired with the large cast size and blocking I often could not figure out who was speaking for the first few seconds of a conversation. It was jarring and broke immersion in a production that otherwise kept me thoroughly engaged.
The Wild Party is certainly a wild experience. Much like the lives of its characters, it’s a blur of high energy numbers between brief moments of calm clarity before the thrill of the night pulls you back into the party’s maelstrom. Yet, in an odd way, the production is a slow burn. It takes its time to establish its characters and their relations with one another, but once the fire catches it can’t be controlled. It is at once a period piece and a contemporary analysis of identity and what it means to live two lives. The Wild Party is energetic, chaotic, and above all stylish. Some flaws rest behind all of that style, but they’re not enough to ruin the production. It’s a quality show, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a concentrated dose of Vaudevillian vitality and the ugly truths it hides.
The University of Texas Department of Threate & Dance’s The Wild Party continues playing at the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre at the University of Texas at 7:30 on November 20, 21, and December 1-5, and 2:00pm on November 21, 22, and December 5.