A new South Florida theater company has hit the stage with its ambitious debut production of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party. In picking that musical, Outré Theatre Company and artistic director Skye Whitcomb are making a statement about what this troupe intends to be: a company willing to embrace challenging material, large-cast shows and young talent.
As with any startup, Outré has strengths and weaknesses, and both are abundantly on display in its first show at the Mizner Park Cultural Arts Center in Boca Raton.
On the plus side are the way The Wild Party showcases certain musical theater actors who ought to be seen more often on the region’s stages, most notably Sabrina Gore as the restless showgirl Queenie and Christina Groom as the troublemaker Kate. Outré has also invested in an artful nightmare of a set by the talented Sean McClelland, and it isn’t relying (as certain theaters do) on recorded musical tracks to back the actor-singers — nine live musicians are hidden behind that set.
On the minus side are the sound design, which renders too many lyrics completely unintelligible; the lighting design, which sometimes leaves key actors shrouded in darkness while supporting characters who are doing nothing can be seen perfectly well; and that band, which drowns out the singers whenever it plays at top volume. The best musical in the world (not that Lippa’s Wild Party rises to that lofty level) can’t connect with an audience unable to see or understand what’s going on.
The musical is, as the title suggests, about a wild party thrown by a bleached-blonde showgirl expressly to humiliate her abusive lover, a vaudeville song-and-dance “clown” who is anything but funny at home. It is one of two Wild Party musicals that debuted in 2000 (the other is by Michael John LaChiusa), both based on a 1926 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March.
Lippa’s Wild Party keeps its focus on Queenie, her violent lover Burrs (Tom Anello), Queenie’s rival Kate and Kate’s date Black (Mark Brown-Rodriguez), though once the party gets rolling there are plenty of dissolute, colorful characters to add crazy flavor to the evening. The score is a pastiche of ballads, jazz-infused sounds, a big vaudeville number plus other songs in a rollicking 1920s style. The language, particularly the vile stuff coming out of Burr’s mouth, can be raw, and the partygoers’ sexual appetites — straight, gay, lesbian — are voracious. Just so you know that this isn’t one for the kiddies.
Whitcomb and choreographer Michelle Petrucci keep the 15-actor cast moving, hoofing, frolicking and, in an orgy scene that implausibly eschews nudity, hooking up. Some of the chorus folks are better than others, the standouts being Sharyn Peoples, whose lesbian madam Madeleine brings a wry longing to her solo An Old-Fashioned Love Story, and Ben Solmor as Jackie, a silent and diminutive dancer who expresses the sensual longing that has fueled that orgy.
The leads blend well in duets, trios and, on Poor Child, as a quartet. Gore’s voice on Out of the Blue, Maybe I Like It This Way, Tell Me Something and How Did We Come to This? is lovely, though occasionally she sings so softly that she’s hard to hear, and a few of her notes are a shade flat. Groom makes Kate a mini Ethel Merman, tearing it up on The Life of the Party. Brown-Rodriguez injects the jazziest notes into his solos and duets, and his I’ll Be Here is haunting. Anello, who has a powerful voice, does his job in making Burrs a thoroughly despicable human being who slips into madness, though he and Gore never seem credible as a couple, even in the fleeting lust the two share at the beginning of the show.
With the departure of several key South Florida companies, particularly over the past year and a half, Outré is a welcome addition to the theater community. Here’s hoping its learning curve is a brief one.