Saturday, May 21, 2016

"The Wild Party"


The Wild Party
Andrew Lippa (Book, Music & Lyrics)


Jocelyn Pickett as Queenie Held on High
In case there were any remaining doubts that the most consistently exciting, exuberant, and excelling musical theatre being staged in San Francisco was not coming from Ray of Light Theatre, then the company’s current production of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party will surely lay the case to rest.  Staged with the erotic energy of Cabaret, the steamy sizzle of Chicago, and the dark decadence of Three Penny Opera, ROL’s Wild Party bursts onto the stage with voices that soar, dances that ignite, and a parade of society’s misfits that equally repulse and attract.  Based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 Prohibition-era, narrative poem by the same title, Andrew Lippa’s book weaves a seductive, sordid tale of a hedonistic heroine and her lovers.  His music employs varying genres that skirt jazz, gospel, and swing but are always underscored with a hard rock beat; and his lyrics trip over tongues with smart, snap, and surprise.  The result is that this successor to Ray of Light’s recent line-up of Lizzie, Heathers: the Musical, and The Rocky Horror Story is yet another edgy example of theatrical dare-deviling that pushes boundaries without sacrificing excellence.

As she enters a sea of hot men first groping and then lifting on high her beautiful, blonde, and buxom body, Queenie in lacy, black lingerie and stockings sings, “How was she ever to love them? ... There were so many of them.”  She is on the hunt for a man to be the next among all the men she has already known; and a hot, tattooed Burrs captures her eye, captivates on her lust, and conquers her bed in a hot sex scene before the opening number is even complete (“Queenie Was a Blonde”).  Three years of his temper and tantrums and his drunken slur, “You lazy slut!” leads Queenie to propose a party where she plots to humiliate the bum in front of all his friends.  “Tonight, I’ll raise my skirt and make him hurt,” she concludes after noting in “Raise the Roof,” “If you keep the whiskey flowing, you can reap what you’ve been sowing.”

The Party Guests
Among other quirky sorts, their party attracts Eddie the low-life boxer and his not-too-bright gal Mae, the lesbian-on-a-hunt Madeleine True, Dolores the hooker, the brothers-lovers Oscar and Phil d’Armano, a male dancer named Jackie, and a female minor called Nadine.  But just as Burrs is adding to Queenie’s anger by going after the minor Nadine with his lust-filled hands and hips, in comes showstopper Kate (“Look at Me Now”) with a smartly dressed, mysterious, and dripping-with-sex-appeal, Mr. Black.  As the heat of the party rises, the illegal alcohol flows, and the coke streams into nostrils, competing love triangles begin to form with Queenie and Burrs each getting pulled into beds and bathtubs by either Black or Kate.  The sweat of sin and sex permeates the air as these lovers and their guests indulge in each other’s pleasure in every manner conceivable – all building toward a climax involving a fight, a gun, and one less lover.  In a tale where there are no winners, Queenie’s earlier phrase “you can reap what you’ve been sowing” returns to haunt her in ways she never meant it to.

Jocelyn Pickett
She is so hot that it is tempting to swear that steam is rising from her inviting eyes of enticement; her smiles that seethe in sexiness; and her long limbs that point, lift, and wrap with feverish intensity.  Jocelyn Pickett reigns supreme on her throne as Queenie, bringing a voice that can electrify and rally (“Raise the Roof”), can rise from lowest-to-highest decibels without any distortion (“Out of the Blue”), and yet can settle down into quiet soul-searching tones full of doubt and questioning (“Who Is This Man?”).  Whether in solo, duet, or the center of a stage full of arms and legs moving in frenetic choreography all around her, this Queenie knows always how to be the star and how to capture our sympathy after we have long forgiven her vile.

Paul Grant Hovannes as Burrs
Her lovers are a contrasting pair -- literally black and white differing in so many ways-- and each portrayed by actors who give award-deserving performances.  Paul Grant Hovannes is the sometimes scary, always sexy Burrs who is part devil, part clown.  His black-make-upped eyes often stare with drink-and-drug-induced blankness but tell a haunting story of a man who is bad, but not all bad.  When he voices his love, his anger, his lust, and his cries for help in song, his vocals match the mood with the clarity and confidence of an actor who has embodied his Burrs with every ounce of his muscled being.

RaMond Thomas as Black
Queenie’s newer attraction, Black, comes in with a standoff coolness, a mannered politeness, and pointed looks with determined outcomes written all over them.  His aim is to rescue Queenie and protect her in his arms and his bed.  He mourns pensively in song, “She’s a beautiful, virginal, sensitive, generous, poor child” while later in a pained voice that is also full of desire, he sings with rich, silver tones in “What Is It about Her,” “This woman make me cry ... makes me burn ... can cut me to the core.”  RaMond Thomas is the perfect combination of outward debonair, inner burning, and mounting rage to pull off the Black needed to complete this doomed love triangle.

Alexandra Feifers as Kate
The other three-part intrigue involving Queenie and Burrs includes the always lurking Kate who can be seen visually plotting how to get Burrs bare and in a bed (or bathtub, if necessary).  In a black flapper dress with plenty of swinging beads and bangles, Alexandra Feifers plows into the already romping party with a voice that cuts through the air like a Siren’s call of tempt as she blasts, “Look at Me Now.”  She shimmers, shakes, and sings with bold moves in dance and a voice of coke-happy glee, “You could be the life of the party if you were more ... like me!”  Ms. Feifers, too, is stunning in performance as she slinks about to woo Burrs or as she centers herself in spotlight with all her boozing buddies.

James Mayagoitia & Zachariah Mohammed as the D'Armano Brothers
Among this exceptionally talented cast, others rise to shine for moments worth notice, often to bring humor to this seedy tale of love and revenge.  Kathryn Fox Hart stops the show as her seducing, sex-hungry Madeline sings in full, rousing voice, “I need a good-natured, old-fashioned lesbian love story, the kind of tale my mother used to tell.”  Daniel Barrington Rubio and Lizzie O’Hara are a male/female Mutt and Jeff as the big and burly boxer and his petite and pixie girlfriend sing in “Two of a Kind” a series of back-and-forth, comic complements like “She’s a one-two punch ... He’s a catered lunch.”  Another pair of lovers, this time the hilarious look-a-like brothers Oscar (James Mayagoitia) and Phil (Zachariah Mohammed) D’Armano have their time to draw laughs at the piano and then to step in to be the unlikeliest of Queenie heroes (pun not intended) as Burrs is hurting her in a fit of jealousy.  Even Queenie and Burrs join in with comedic tongue-in-cheek as they re-enact with full ensembles’ help twisted versions of the Adam and Eve and Sodom and Gomorra biblical stories in “A Wild, Wild Party.”

Malakani Severson as Jackie
While not providing a laugh break, Malakani Severson does step forward to secure his well-deserved solo spot in “Jackie’s Last Dance.”  With moves that range from ballet to acrobatically modern steps, from animalistic lunges to graceful leaps, his dance freezes all action just before discovery of infidelity leads to a fierce fight between Queenie’s lovers.

Director Jenn BeVard has envisioned dozens of ways to fully utilize the massive stage of the Victoria Theatre to keep her cast of fourteen in constant rearrangement, sometimes in full frenzy of moving bodies and other times as reposed, ever-watchful, and often-responding to the goings-on as a Greek-like chorus. 

The Cast in Dance
Alex Rodriguez has created and directed scene after scene of invigorating, gyrating, even frenetic choreography that this ensemble performs with perfection clearly always the target.  Hands, hips, knees, heads, and entire bodies swirl, snap, and swing in start-and-stop motion in the crowd-pleasing “The Juggernaut.”  At another point, ensemble members mold amazingly into a descending staircase of bodies to guide Queenie from bedroom to party room (“By Now the Room Was Moving”).  In choruses full of voices that blend robustly and richly, the full-cast numbers of dance and song repeatedly draw huge audience appreciation. 

The dresses, suits, hats, and shoes of the feathered, beaded, scarfed Roaring Twenties (along, of course, with the appropriate under-garment styles) are re-created in full color by Co-Designers Sibilla Carini and Melissa Wortman.  A multi-level stage with band integrated into the cast in one corner, a tilted series of illegal booze bottles lining the back wall, and just enough props to set individual scenes in corners left and right are all the fine handiwork of Erik LaDue.  A major starring role must be laid at the inventive mastery hand of Lighting Designer Joe D’Emilio who makes use of the Victoria’s side walls for dramatic shadow effects, who uses lighting to give stark and ghastly faces to a lined-up chorus, and who splashes color and spots to ensure debauchery, party, and jealousy all have their time on the stage.  David Aaron Brown conducts a fabulous, nine-piece band that really makes Andrew Lippa’s score pop and zing in sound and tempo.

For anyone who likes to feel the mounting energy emitting from an audience that is fully in engaged as a participating partner with a cast in creating an auditorium bursting with electric excitement, now is the time to rush for a ticket for Ray of Light Theatre’s The Wild Party before the mad, manic scene comes too soon to an end on June 11.

Rating: 5 E

Ray of Light Theatre’s The Wild Party continues through June 11, 2016 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.victoriatheatre.org/index.php/box-office.

Photos by Nick Otto

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