It always seems difficult to have a good time while you're watching other people have a good time, as they drink, snort coke, have sex and generally misbehave. It's like that moment at a party when, amidst the revelry, some clod says, "Wow, we're having such a great time, aren't we?" Invariably, silence follows and then people start looking for their coats in the spare bedroom. You can't be too self-aware of the fun you're having, or the fun runs for cover.
That has always been the challenge presented by The Wild Party, a show written in its entirety by Andrew Lippa. Based on a long narrative poem written by Joseph Moncure March in 1928, the play depicts a roaring twenties love triangle triggered at said party involving Queenie, a sexy young gal who is pursued by Burrs, a brutish vaudeville clown, and by Mr. Black, a sophisticated and genteel African-American gentleman.
This production by Blank Canvas has some powerful elements going for it, including notable performances in the leading roles. But the 15-person cast often feels terribly cramped on the small BCT stage. And while the seven-piece band under the direction of Ian Huettel does some nice work with Lippa's inventive and often convoluted scoring, there are enough awkward blends between the musicians and the singers to make a few songs thud rather than thrill.
At the beginning, it seems that Burrs and Queenie have found their sexual soul mates in each other, with Miss Q. attracted to Burrs' rough-hewn magnetism. But then the dazzling hooker Kate arrives with Mr. Black in tow, and Queenie starts vibrating on a different wavelength. Burrs' exhilarating sense of danger now seems just scary, and Queenie responds to Black's mellow and respectful approach.
Of course there are a lot of other partygoers at this party, which plays out in real time, and they each have their own agendas, not to mention their own songs. Some of these work splendidly. For instance, a dyed-in-the-wool lipstick lesbian Madelaine True (a sultry Kim Eskut) goes scouting for a hook-up in "An Old Fashioned Love Story," and the sharp lyrics deliver her open-door policy in spades: "See that girl on the bed/She's a bee I could free from the hive/I would never dare deceive her, she's a clever beaver/ With a quality I like—she's alive."
Zac Hudak as boxer Eddie and Betsy Kaul as ditzy Mae share a cute moment in the duet "Two of a Kind." But another duo, the sexually ambiguous D'Armano brothers played by Kevin Kelly and Justin Woody, never quite find their amusing trigger point, which is odd since each of these actors has serious comedy chops. True, they don't have their own song, but you'd think there would be a way to make them more involved in a party that, frankly, could use some laughs.
The uber-talented Neely Gevaart takes on the role of Kate and handles her jazzy numbers with style. But when she decides to belt, the notes pierce a bit more than they need to, drawing attention to themselves rather than to the song at hand. In the role of Mr. Black, Nathan Tolliver is solid and respectable, and croons his love ballads, such as the tender "I'll Be Here," with all the requisite emotion.
By the time Act Two rolls around, you're ready for something really sexy to happen. And it does in the number "Come With Me" when most of the party people pair off and go at it in pretty graphic detail. This is the, um, climax of the play leading to a downbeat denouement that leaves the main characters disillusioned, isolated, or worse. Because of that, this ambitious musical seems to have a rather puritanical moral that rings a bit false these days: Have some drinks, get sexy, and you'll DIE!
But if you can look past that, there are sunny spots in this Party. For one, Patrick Ciamacco, the director of the show, does double duty as Burrs and kills it with his powerful, resonant voice. While other performers can easily be overwhelmed by the band, Ciamacco's lyrics always come through clear and strong. Plus, his fearsome mien makes him one clown you might see in your nightmares.
And in the central role of Queenie, Trinidad Snider conveys many levels of her character's romantic torment. Although she doesn't quite express the fun and carefree side of Queenie as fully as she might, Snider makes you ache for this young woman who simply desires some passion along with the mechanics of love.
The production is aided by drop-dead-gorgeous period gowns corralled by costume designer Luke Scattergood, energetic choreography by Katie Zarecki, and evocative lighting designed by Cory Molner.
Ultimately, Lippa's eclectic song stylings may make you feel like you stayed at a party a little too long. But the production at Blank Canvas Theatre has enough 1920s kick in its giggle water to keep you totally zozzled.
The Wild PartyThrough June 4 at Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio
W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458