Adam Aufderhaar as Eddie and Chelsea Burris as Mae in <i>The Wild Party</i>.
I'd never heard of The Wild Party, a musical based on a poem written by Joseph Moncure March in 1928. So I was curious about Music Theatre of Madison's production of Andrew Lippa's show, which had a short off-Broadway run in 2000 and has an even shorter run at the Bartell Theatre through Saturday. It may be burdened with songs that are for the most part either overwrought or forgettable, but I was genuinely impressed with this production directed by Molly Richards -- particularly by the cast members, who are so talented that they helped me overlook the homespun production values like haphazard costumes and murky lighting.
The tempestuous relationship between two vaudeville performers, Queenie, a showgirl (well played by the petite powerhouse Liz Cassarino) and Burrs, a volatile clown (Bobby Arnold, who conveys a menacing appeal) has hit the skids, and she plans a soirée that she hopes will mix things up. A variety of hard-partying guests arrive, cleverly introduced in "What a Party" as a hooker, a looker, a minor, etc.
Queenie's frenemy, the desperately rowdy Kate (company founder Meghan Randolph, with a big voice and good comic timing) shows up with her new man, Black (the solid Chris Tiernan). Sparks fly as Queenie and Black share instant chemistry and Kate sets her sights on Burrs. Much drinking and dancing ensues, and for some reason a bed keeps getting pushed around the stage.
Too many of the songs are clunky. I hate lyrics that are really talky and just toss out facts, as when Black sings, in "Tell me Something," "I live uptown, I live alone, I came from Chicago two months ago...then I met Kate, then I met you." The singers are sometimes swallowed up by the live music, but having said that, there are some really satisfying numbers that stand out and some inspired choreography (kudos to Nicholas Frey for his lovely solo).
The appealing Chelsea Burris is a scene-stealer, the real deal in terms of talent. Her duet "Two of a Kind" with Eddie the boxer (Adam Aufderhaar) is a gem. Lorah Haskins as Madeline True, a lusty lesbian on the prowl, is excellent in the clever ditty "An Old-Fashioned Love Story." Several of the party guests are working on a biblical musical called Good Heavens, which leads to madcap fun in the number "A Wild, Wild Party."
Tiernan and Cassarino have some nice moments in a bathroom scene before things become quite debaucherous. There is some fairly graphic humping from everyone, as the party guests and lead characters cavort in various groping groupings. I don't consider myself a prude, but that murky lighting I complained about earlier was appreciated during the orgy. Things ended violently and the audience cheered loudly.
When the show began, I worried it would be a Chicago-wannabe musical with faux film noir touches and forced sexiness. But by the end of the night, as things indeed got steamy, I came away thinking that Madison has a deep bench of musical theater performers.