REVIEW – The Wild Party – San Jose Stage

The Wild Party may well be the illegitimate musical bastard that resulted from a drunken orgy between Cabaret, Three Penny Opera, Bonnie and Clyde, Chicago and a snuff film. Full of appalling, damaged, depraved, and generally vile, predatory characters, it doesn’t take long to determine that you’re probably not going to “like” many of these party guests; that while there’s humor and certainly some sexy that’s brought to this dark, debaucherous table, the lovefest is probably not going to extend past the “4th wall”. That being said, like cleaning under your fingernails, it’s a bit repulsive in nature, but the end results is ultimately strangely satisfying. The sooner you stop thinking these characters could all benefit from an infinity of therapy sessions or that more than a few of them would ever contribute positively to society, the sooner you’ll enjoy the raucous ride of theatrical amphetamines that is San Jose Stage’s The Wild Party.

This play is bold, occasionally shocking and at times even possibly arousing. There’s a dirty, rebellious decidedly necessary immorality that runs through it; what really equates to a very basic, fundamentally human thread. As I‘ve already mentioned, these are unlikable, twisted… let’s just call it like it is… pretty effed up people. There’s not a seemingly legitimate or even genuine attempt to justify many of the choices these substantially flawed and in some cases tortured souls make. It’s also totally not important that we like them in order for use to care about them. Well, some of them. And, when I say care, I mean just a little, JUST enough. Arguably they’re not “good” or even “nice” people, but they are by no means flat. They’re written with sufficient dimension and I think played with even more layers than the text and music probably suggest.

It’s a show musically mixed with prohibition age jazz, torch songs, and advanced, contemporary musical theater components. It’s also a very… belty score, with occasional discord and quite a bit of yelling which I felt was definitely too loud and too abrasive at times. The band (who masterfully executed the challenging range and extreme pace changes of the score) was definitely too loud and as was much of the singing which combined for an effect that felt too extreme for the intimate space. Like the characters, I’m not sure I liked all the music, but it entertained, told a story and made no excuses. Certainly the sound challenges can be worked out over time, and in so doing I’m sure will highlight the tremendous strength and skill of the actors rather than detract from the excellence of the production.

Our cast of actors do a tremendous job with the dysfunctional make-up of the play, giving in almost all cases, a vivid depiction of real people (even though they are rhyming and singing on a stage). Burrs is genuinely frightening and simultaneously magnetic. His rage juxtaposed against his clowned gaze was suitably disturbing. His pipes and commitment to the character clear. His sickening co-dependency with Queenie was convincing on every level. It’s these kinds of roles and performances that make me hope there was not an OUNCE of typecasting… and that I’d sincerely be nervous to run into the actor in a dark alley.

Queenie was a role made for this actress, who has played many great roles on this stage and others. I’d rank this performance as one of her best. She’s confident and powerful on stage and her legs certainly as the script dictates, possess their own sphere of influence.

Kate was performed with a special balance of self-destruction and moxie. Her plight was underscored with a special self-deprecating humor that the actress had a very secure handle on. She is well-intentioned and simultaneously a siren of self sabotage, her arc is interesting and well-defined. Where she could have gone pathetic and victimized, she owns her flaws and unapologetically schemes to a predictable end.

Black was sincere and had the presence to pull off the role, but I would say I didn’t personally buy the requisite chemistry with Queenie to create the means that justified the end. The understanding, bond and portrayal of the Burrs/Queenie disaster was perhaps just too intense for me to commit fully to a Black/Queenie pairing be it for show or for real.

The ensemble each get their time to shine be it in song, dance or both and it shines particularly bright for Madelaine True, who is kind of show-stopping every time she opens her mouth. Eddie and Mae got my vote for most likely to succeed despite some obvious anger management issues on the part of Eddie.

The highlight for me was easily the most appropriately inappropriate choreography I’ve seen to date and some of the best I’ve seen in a long, long time. Creative, sexy, provocative and stylish, it worked to tell the stories and not just fill time. It was unabashed, intentional, gritty, indeed crass at times and yet seemed perfectly in sync with the character choices. It set an expectation and did not hold back. I’m not ever a fan of a dream ballet, and while this production maybe has more of an opiate-laced dance interlude, it was one of the more perfect moments for me of the show.

The set design was impactful even before the show starts: a functional, aesthetically pleasing, layered, metaphorical set that did more than hint at the sexual heat driving the players and the personal cages that restrained and restricted them. Along with clever staging, effective lighting and edgy costuming the technical elements struck a perfect chord of textured, uninhibited taboo and criminal sensuality.

This is a trigger happy production (in all senses of the word) and if you’re at all sensitive or squeamish about topics such as sexual violence, promiscuity, graphically simulated sex acts, adultery, drug use, physical abuse, rage issues or guns, consider yourself adequately warned. Short of nudity, essentially every “line” was either crossed upon the initial downbeat or perhaps was exiled from the shows inception. All the prudish disclaimers aside, a deserved 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for the unquestionably ballsy and aptly named “Wild Party.” Leave your morality and judgement at the lobby and just accept your role as voyeur to this impressive dose of decadent degeneracy and wicked wantonness. The Wild Party plays through July 17th at the Stage in Downtown San Jose.

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