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Vaudeville Verismo

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The words &quotwild;" and &quotparty;" haven't been synonymous with Broadway in years. In the days before ubiquitous mic-ing, overproduced Disney spectacles, and $100 ticket prices, perhaps a few shows a year could be counted on to have enough spontaneity to suggest a party--possibly even a wild one at that.

The year 2000 proved those days were over when not one but two musicals titled The Wild Party tanked, despite lots of talent and hype.

One of these productions was such a bomb it lost millions of dollars. Produced by the Public Theater and Paramount Pictures, it starred Mandy Patinkin, Eartha Kitt, and Tony Collette, yet even with all this going for it, the show lasted only 68 performances.

As seen at the large Virginia Theatre this Wild Party (with music by Michael John LaChiusa) had lots of problems. Chief among them was was the grand proscenium stage, which seemed an inappropriate setting for this tawdry tale. Joseph Moncure March's jazz-age poem has plenty of dramatic punch, but its scope is small; so the lives and problems of its characters felt insignificant on the cavernous Broadway stage.

The entirety of The Wild Party takes place in a cramped studio apartment, the site of a late-night prohibition-era shindig, thrown by a vaudeville couple, Queenie and Burrs, whose real life act resembles a &quotPunch; and Judy" show. Their domestic setting is vividly rendered in March's claustrophobic couplets--a trick which has been recreated here in Los Angeles by the members of the Blank Theatre Company.

Five years after its crash on Broadway, director Daniel Henning has picked The Wild Party out of the ash heaps and given it new life in a tiny black box space on L.A.'s Theatre Row.

An excellent cast helps make this revival L.A.'s best small production of a musical since 2003's The Shaggs. It must be said that Henning and his cast haven't solved all The Wild Party's problems. The book still gets mushy about halfway through and LaChiusa's score still resembles bathtub gin: his songs have enough kick to get your pulse racing, but they never feel entirely fresh.

Still, the top shelf cast sings these boozy ditties with enough conviction to make you care. Eric Anderson's imbues the character of Burrs with real menace and Valarie Pettiford is perfectly cast as Queenie. Like the poem calls for, Pettiford's &quotage; stands still" and &quother; legs are built to drive men mad." Anderson and Pettiford share an intoxicating chemistry--it's their scenes together that give the show an emotional center.

These two actors also dance well--and its this aspect of the production which distinguishes it from its Broadway predecessor. Instead of going for big flashy choreography, Jane Lanier (who also plays the role of Kate) limits the dancing to the actual shimmying and shaking that the characters would do at the party. By carefully staging these maneuvers in a realistic fashion, Lanier ensures that the dancing doesn't distract, but that it serves to further reveal the characters' desires.

Ultimately though, these scenes work because of the talented cast assembled--an ensemble so deep, that one supporting part is played by the man who originated the role on Broadway. Nathan Lee Graham was one of the standouts in the original cast, and his demonically sassy Phil D'Armano is just as memorable here.

Seeing Broadway caliber performances like Graham's in a theater 1/20th the size of a Broadway house is sort of like having a show staged in your own living room--a concept that's at the very heart of March's vaudeville verismo, which depicts entertainers bringing their work home with them. This intimacy is why the production, despite the show's flaws, is a success. The Blank Theatre Company's Wild Party brazenly invites you to mingle up close with its guests, inhale their cheap perfume, watch them shed their clothes--and of course, hear their sordid songs.

The Wild Party runs through December 18th at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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