George C. Wolfe’s wonderful, messy and dangerous new musical The Wild Party has opened at the Virginia Theater on Broadway, and I don’t think I’ve ever loved a show more while seeing–and forgiving–its flaws. For one thing, it’s as if the show is making a lunatic kamikaze attack on the age of Disney. Which is one reason to love it, yes? It has something for everyone, except all the family. It isn’t safe, an on-stage cartoon, or yet another revival. It is, excitingly, what the Public Theater should be doing. Across the street from Wild Party , a revival of the l957 The Music Man is about to open. Comforting cornball Americana, or edgy Jazz Age decadence? Seventy-six trombones in the big parade, or the incestuous black brothers Phil and Oscar, in perfect harmony, in their parade?
Are acting more like
Who are acting more like
It’s all so gay!
Mr. Wolfe and his composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa have adapted Joseph Moncure March’s jagged l920′s doggerel poem into a cross-fertilization of subcultures, a melting-pot nightmare of a schizophrenic America. Its demimonde of second-rate showbiz performers, of fallen angels, pushers, pederasts, gays, dykes and straights (straightish, anyway) is of a world without boundaries, colliding and dangerous, in loveless America.
Wild Party is the underbelly of America’s meltdown into self-gratifaction and blurred identities, of party time and exploding violence, of forbidden fruit and the price we pay–and nobody does it better than George C. Wolfe. The director of such lasting achievements as Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk , Angels in America and Jelly’s Last Jam , which he also wrote, is at his scintillating best on the dangerous edge beyond the mainstream. (His revival of the l944 musical comedy On the Town , for example, wasn’t his best work.) That all three of those revolutionary pieces crossed over to Broadway is some kind of miracle. A Wild Party on Broadway is thrillingly wayward and risky, creating its own pocket of resistance, an Alternative Broadway.
At one combustible peak of Mr. Wolfe’s staging, when the party itself was coming unhinged, when it seemed to be imploding on stage in a haze of coke and sex and the promise of death, I thought that this fantastically ambitious new musical was actually on the cusp of making theater history. Who has risked anything like it before? And I felt the same sense of excitement during the opening scenes of the show, which had me on the edge of my seat in anticipation. From the start, Mr. Wolfe and his creative team had thrown down an unexpected ace, taking us completely by surprise.
The first scenes are performed like burlesque turns, with each one announced by a title on an easel. Students of theater technique call this Brechtian; truth is, it was born in vaudeville a century ago. In l960 Cabaret mastered the form with its diabolic host tempting us to join the lowlife party where “everything is beautiful.” John Osborne’s The Entertainer in 1950 memorably interchanged the domestic drama on stage with the failed comic Archie Rice (played by Laurence Olivier) performing seedy vaudevillian turns in decrepit music halls. (“Let me know where you’re appearing tomorrow night,” Archie says famously to his silent audience. “And I’ll come and see you .”) I thought that if only Wild Party could maintain its opening metaphor, it would be simply remarkable. We would have the party action with its ironic shadow, the cheap show-biz acts set before a sleazy backdrop in vaudeville. As the refrain of the 14-year-old Nadine, a future hooker with stars in her eyes, goes:
I always wanted to see the lights of Broadway
I always wanted to hear the traffic roar.
I always wanted to be a part
Of New York City’s great big heart…
But the vaudevillian concept is abandoned after the opening, reducing it to a prologue. It returns haphazardly, like a convenient bookend, for the ultimate scene–the killing of Burrs, the psychotic lover of Queenie. But it is too late by then, I’m afraid, and the killing ought to be awesomely real, not confused with sideshow irony. So the opportunity was lost, though Mr. Wolfe has the surest sense of a musical’s intoxicating pulse since the late Michael Bennett. He creates rhythmically, on the wing, knowing how to keep the stage hot, in this case simmeringly on the boil, wired, rude, uncensored. His effects are visceral, his stage pictures rarely still. Yet for all the seductive action, Wild Party is like a beautiful problem child who needs slapping around a bit. It needs more time to be fixed, the very thing ambitiously risky projects always need.
Take Mandy Patinkin’s manic Burrs. Mr. Patinkin’s excesses are well known, and as he’s playing a murderous psychotic, he’s entitled to be over the top. But so much? The idea of him playing Burrs the entertainer in Jolsonesque black face is brilliantly creepy. Burrs is a red-nosed clown in the original poem. He’s a character who hides behind masks. When Mr. Patinkin encourages us to applaud in the opening scenes–applaud him , actually–it’s in vaudevillian character. He’s a washed-up entertainer begging for applause. But when he asks us to join in a solo song of his much later, and even encourages us to applaud during a party scene, Mr. Patinkin has stepped right out of character into narcissistic areas no one ought to enter. How to control our Mandy? You can no more slow him down than a runaway train. You can try. A refrigerator dropped on his head from a great height might do it. But, momentarily stunned, Mandy Patinkin would rise again.
On the other hand, Toni Collette, in the central role of Queenie, is a major triumph from start to finish. She is the kind of open-hearted, God-given talent audiences fall in love with. And so we did, cheering for her at the curtain call. Her loose, innate sexuality makes her so believable, her warm uninhibited center seems to embrace us. You will surely know her as the single mother in The Sixth Sense (for which she was nominated for an Oscar). I remember looking up her name after seeing her lovely, touching performance in the movie, wondering who she could be. (Answer: the dumpy Aussie in Muriel’s Wedding. ) Making her New York stage debut in Wild Party , Ms. Collette throws herself into Queenie–”lips like coals aglow, her face was a tinted mask of snow”–and we are at her feet.
Then again, the somewhat underwritten character of Black (played by a weak Yancey Arias with a velvety voice) is no match for this Queenie. Ms. Collette possesses the stage presence that’s missing from the too-cool Mr. Arias, and there can be little sexual heat between them. The ensemble is otherwise exceptional, including Tony Award- winner Tonya Pinkins as Queenie’s friend and rival Kate, and Eartha Kitt–of all unexpected people!–as Dolores, the wise old vaudeville broad who reminds one, just a little, of Eartha Kitt. The star appears on stage like a tiny, glamorous apparition. Ms. Kitt is petite; it’s the legend that got big. She is, of course, the master of purring feline suggestiveness, and it’s a pleasure to welcome her to the party here.
Set designer Robin Wagner, with lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer and the stylish costume designer Toni-Leslie James, have created their very best work, a form of fading grandeur in an abandoned Harlem ballroom that’s perfect for the seedy elegance of the story. It’s as if Queenie and Burrs and company are squatting there in time past, whirling before us like ghosts from a shadowy, ruined place. There will be other times, other stories, other chances to make right. If you believe that a show as safe as Contact is somehow the revolutionary musical of our time, you will be unlikely to see what Mr. Wolfe and Mr. LaChiusa have dared to achieve with Wild Party . It saddens me: The mediocre triumphs, the innovative is clobbered. Very well; then let us applaud Wild Party. With all its faults born in wild imaginings, with all its rough exuberance and uncompromising sexiness, Wild Party is where we prefer to be.