Miami’s Wild Party is One You Need to Go To

Review by Ken Stern of The Wild Party: Miami University

The Wild Party is going on this weekend and next up at Miami University’s Gates-Abegglen Theatre in Oxford. If you like a swinging good time, boarding on debauchery, and insist on live music, dance, singing, and fisticuffs at your parties, then go. You won’t be able to crash this party, but you can probably get a great seat to watch it up close. Do so.

If you enjoyed the excesses depicted in The Wolf of Wall Street, you will love The Wild Party. Set in the 1920s, the story’s origin is a 1928 book length poem written by Joseph Moncure March, an American poet, journalist, and screenwriter. (Fun fact: the poem was banned in Boston because of its salacious content.) Its characters are vaudeville actors and their friends: other entertainers: clowns, dancers, boxers, and assorted followers, and hookers, Sometimes a party is just a party: the plot is entirely personal, about relationships and what to do when facing up to one that long ago went bad.

Andrew Lippa’s musical, first workshopped in 1997, is a jazz opera, offering 50 songs. It is almost entirely sung, and much of the cast’s movement is dance (wonderfully choreographed by Jay Goodlett, with a great fight scene choreographed by John Baca).

Queenie (freshman Abby Chafe, with a strong voice as well as stage presence) stands out from the opening curtain; the six ensemble cast members are dressed in gray and black but he is wearing white, with pink accents and a pink scarf. The opening song is hers. We learn that “That she liked her lovers violent. / And she likes her lovers vicious. / But until she found the one man / Who could answer all her wishes.”

Enter Burrs, halfway through the song. They are a pair, made for each other, he singing: “He was mean and rough . . . . / They likes him / tough.” Jeremiah Plessinger’s Burrs is a terrific singer, dancer, and actor, and lover. Alas, relationships are more than all about sex. After a couple years, a near rape turns into a defense with a kitchen knife. Maybe the only way to keep the two together is to throw a party to end all parties.

So they do, Queenie and the ensemble singing “Let’s raise the roof! / Let’s call the shots / Let’s roll the dice.” Maybe Mr. Right will come in, sweep her off her feet, and take her away. But love is complex, and while Burrs is an abuser, Queenie is no angel, and they have years of having made their relationship theirs. Even as relationships go bad, there is ambivalence.

But the handsome Mr. Black (great acting and singing by Brenton Sullivan) might be as good at heart as he is in looks. Kate (Alisha Bond, another great voice, with a comic acting touch) brought Black, but having started out as a hooker, she shows she’s not quite retired. As Queenie is attracted to Black, Kate gravitates toward Burrs. There are duets, and the four singing together, or countering each other, polyphonically (Stephen Lytle, music director).

The action is primarily sung, and danced, with the ensemble cast on stage and moving in dance most of the time. Sometimes they are comatose, on the floor, but they manage to snap fingers in unison, or raise an arm and move a hand in that 1920s flapper wave.

Restless, the four leads make use of the entire stage. The set before the curtain looks like the front of a vaudeville theatre, with walls of posters and a giant board announcing The Wild Party, with writing credits. That board is raised to reveal Queenie’s and Burr’s apartment’s bedroom and bathroom. Once the party starts the front of the stage becomes their living room, with a divan, and kitchen, with a small table. The ensemble, too, moves about, as people do at a party (Ed Cohen ably directed this swirling mass with Gion DeFrancesco, scenic designer and scene shop foreman, Tom Featherstone).

A couple of times character actors get solos or duets. Madelaine sings “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” about her lesbian desires, thwarted every time. Melissa Rowan’s Madelaine has a strong voice and stage presence, with an ironic comic touch. Remy Willlocks also deserves a shout-out for a smarvelous olo dance number in the second act.

Eddie (Daniel True-Omait), the boxer, and his wife Mae (Cassidy Steele, with a unique high pitched, what might be the classical flapper, voice) stand out in their number, as do brothers Oscar (George Swarn) and Phil (Michael Smith). These two are dressed in red striped suit coats over argyle sweater vests. The theatre department accomplishes its usual great costuming, led by costume designer Melanie Mortimore, with support by production manager Melanie Mortimore and producer Julia Guichard.

The production is the theatre department’s annual big spring musical. The cast of 18 is supported by an eight piece music ensemble. Curtain is at 730 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, with Sunday matinees on the 23rd and 30th. For tickets, call 513-529-3200, email boxoffice@miamioh.edu or click on this link.

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