by Lynn on February 25, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs, Toronto, Ont.

Book by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe
Based on the epic poem by Joseph Moncure March
Music and Lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed by Robert McQueen
Choreography by Stephanie Graham
Set by Michael Gianfrancesco
Lighting by Kimberley Purtell
Costume Design by Alex Amini
Sound by Peter McBoyle

A frenzied effort by a strong cast to bring this story to life that is ultimately overwhelmed by over-amplification, an unwieldy set and weak direction.

The Story. Joseph Moncure March wrote his epic poem, The Wild Party, in 1926 but because of its sexual nature was only published in 1928. The poem is about hedonism, sexual adventure, hot jazz, cocaine, Gin (the drink, not the card came), and Queenie who was a vaudeville dancer who drove men wild with desire and liked her men vicious and violent. At the moment she was living with Burrs. He had an act in black-face in the same vaudeville show as Queenie. A blackman in black-face—a lot of bitterness and anger there. Matters between Queenie and Burrs were pretty tense until it was decided they have a wild party and invite all their wild friends. Matters ramp up from there.

Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe based their 1999-2000 Broadway show, The Wild Party, on the epic poem. LaChiusa wrote 40 songs including two reprises, often using the rich, vivid language of Joseph Moncure March’s poem.

The Production. The Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs is such an unforgiving place for designers, directors, and definitely sound designers. The stage is so wide that sometimes if a scene is way over there stage left, you can’t even see with peripheral vision what’s happening on stage right.

Trouble begins early with Michael Gianfrancesco’s set. The orchestra is up stage centre behind a raised platform that acts as a bar. In front of that is a large frame. Sometimes a backdrop that explains the location of a scene drops down inside the frame. Most of the time nothing drops down but if anyone dances on the bar, someone’s view in the audience is obstructed by the frame. This means that most of the action has to happen in the front half of the stage. Why the orchestra isn’t placed more efficiently on either side of the stage, thus shortening the large width of the playing area, is a mystery.

The valiant cast begin at level 10 and don’t let up. It’s a frenzy of effort to be buoyant, lively and wild with a hint of desperation. Then there is the problem of the sound—an ongoing problem with musicals in this city. The orchestra is amplified. The cast is amplified. It’s a tug of war as to who is more audible. Here’s a hint—no one. With that much amplification in that small a room you can’t make out the lyrics. It’s a musical with 40 songs and you can’t make out the lyrics. Do you see a problem? Me too.

As Burrs, Daren A. Herbert is a volcano of pent up anger, bitterness and humiliation. He loves Queenie, but knows what a wandering eye she has. He gives a heart-squeezing performance of a man on the brink. He has a certain grace but there is danger about him that is forbidding. This is a wonderful performance.

As Queenie, Cara Ricketts is cool, distant and alluring. Is she playing a white woman who is over powdered because she’s afraid to be seen un-made up? Is Queenie a black woman wanting to be white, hence all that powder? Queenie has a lot to hide. It’s been said that The Wild Party is about people hiding behind masks. Perhaps.

What is hard to hide is Robert McQueen’s weak direction. When the cast as a whole is facing the audience, singing their hearts out, it’s straightforward. But what to make of scenes of people dancing on the bar that can’t be seen clearly because the framing device obstructs the view. What’s with all the entrances from the audience and from the stage right door? When Queenie makes her grand exit she leaves by another door completely. How many entrance ways does this small apartment of Queenie and Burrs have? And no it’s not about suspending disbelief. It’s about logical blocking.

There is a scene between Queenie and Black, a man who touches her heart. He questions her constant state of being made up. He wants to see her true face. It should be a tremendously touching scene but it isn’t because of McQueen’s blocking. The scene is way over there stage right, with Queenie and Black on a bed facing each other. She sits in profile facing the audience. He is in profile facing her. Yet anyone on the right side of the theatre can’t see anything because the scene is in the corner and Black is blocking our view. All we see is his back. Beyond frustrating.

Comment. There are 15 characters in The Wild Party and every character has at least one song telling their story, hopes, dreams and failures, presented as a party piece, facing the audience. With little in the way of variation it’s hard to keep the characters separate and individual. It’s been said that The Wild Party is about people hiding behind masks. Perhaps. It still doesn’t help if we can’t often differentiate between characters.

As I said, the cast are valiant in trying to make this show ‘sing’ and lift. It’s just that they are defeated by everything around them.

Acting Up Stage Company in association with Obsidian Theatre Company and producing partner Linda and Chris Montague presents:

Opened: February 23, 2015
Closes: March 8, 2015
Cast: 15; 8 men, 7 women
Running Time: 2 hours, no intermission.

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