Review: The Wild Party (Acting Up Stage Company & Obsidian Theatre)

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Toronto’s Acting Up Stage Company & Obsidian Theatre present the ’20s jazz musical The Wild Party

It was the roaring ‘20s; the era of prohibition and bathtub gin, Vaudeville and minstrel shows, jazz and flappers. World War I was over and the economic boom it spurred ushered in an entire decade that felt like one big party. This is the world of The Wild Party, a musical by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe inspired by a scandalous 1928 narrative poem of the same title by Joseph Moncure March. This new production of the musical, a co-production of Acting Up Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre Company, is indeed a wild, if at times uneven, party.

Queenie (Cara Ricketts) and Burrs (Daren A. Herbert) are performers on the Vaudeville circuit and share a tumultuous relationship. They host a grand party for their old gang of friends; a motley crew of characters who exist on the seedier side of show business. The party eventually climaxes into an orgy of bootleg liquor, cocaine, and uninhibited sex with pairings from across the sexual spectrum.

The show runs approximately 110 minutes with no intermission and is divided into five acts; The Vaudeville, Promenade of Guests, The Party, After Midnight Dies, and Finale. Director Robert McQueen keeps the pacing tight and the show zips along at a good clip.

McQueen has also assembled a powerhouse cast of Canadian musical theatre talent. The roof-raising ensemble numbers are truly enthralling and are a joy to watch. The show progresses like a fireworks display; as each cast member is introduced they get a chance to burst and bask the audience in their incandescent talent for a few brief moments. The Promenade of Guests and The Party segments of the show are an almost-cacophonous sustained high of tightly-paced, meticulously choreographed, high-energy musical numbers.

Standout performances include Susan Gilmour who is deliciously conniving in her take on the fading Vaudeville star Delores Montoya; Lisa Horner, who is effortlessly funny as lesbian stripper Miss Madelaine True; Sterling Jarvis, who simmers in a menacing slow burn as “colored” prizefighter Eddie Mackrel; and Daren A. Herbert’s Burrs, he strikes a balance between the character’s two sides — the gregarious clown and the jealous, violent lover.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t completely sold on Cara Ricketts in the lead role of Queenie. The role is the centrepiece of the show and since the calibre of the ensemble performances is so high the show really needs a dynamite lead performer to stand out among those bright lights. I just wasn’t drawn in by Ricketts’ performance and it felt tentative to me whereas everybody around her seemed to be going for broke.

I didn’t think Ricketts effectively conveyed the character’s sense of desperation as her unravelling relationship disintegrates beyond the point of repair throughout the show and I also didn’t think she had any convincing chemistry with Dan Chameroy who played Black, her mysterious new man. As a result I thought the end of the show fell flat compared to its uproarious beginning and middle section. The fireworks display kind of just fizzles out at the end.

However, I did really like the choice to cast African-American actors in the lead roles of Queenie and Burrs. The choice creates some interesting commentary particularly around Queenie’s obsession with dying her hair blonde and painting her face white and Burrs performing a minstrel show in black face.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Michael Gianfrancesco’s gorgeous set design which beautifully fills the space in the Berkeley Street Downstairs theatre and transforms it into Queenie and Burrs’ apartment, complete with bedroom, bathroom, living room and dining room all decked out in period-accurate furnishings as well a proscenium framing a stage in front of the band pit and a scaffolding fire escape, both allow for great use of levels in the performance space.

Though I had a few quibbles here and there, I really enjoyed The Wild Party, the powerhouse cast and musical director Bob Foster’s confident command of the orchestra really elevate the jazz-infused score. When The Wild Party is a wild party on stage, it’s at its best. In those scenes the cast’s energy is infections and exhilarating. It’s that party that I wished wouldn’t end.

Details:

  • The Wild Party is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre, Downstairs (26 Berkeley Street) through March 8, 2015
  • Shows run Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, 8:00PM; Friday, 7:00PM; Sunday, 1:00PM
  • Tickets $30.00 to $55.00 ($18 Student Matinees 1:00PM, February 25 & March 4)
  • Tickets are available by phone 416.368.3110 or visit www.actingupstage.com

Photo of Cara Ricketts and Daren A. Herbert by Racheal McCaig

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