Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
So begins Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem “The Wild Party” about a group of show people and the hedonistic event of the title, which is its setting. It’s also the first line in Andrew Lippa’s musical version of the material, which is being staged by Baltimore’s Iron Crow Theatre in its most ambitious season to date. If Iron Crow, Baltimore’s only queer theatre, is not loyal to its source’s Jazz Age place and time (more on that later), it certainly evokes a decadent world teetering on the brink and people who live on its fringes with nothing to lose.
Program notes from Director Sean Elias tell us that Iron Crow’s season is one of “dark play” and his staging certainly serves that theme. I would actually go so far as to say that this is an almost macabre interpretation, one that pushes the envelope on depravity. But I think this is precisely Elias’ intention and, on that point, he succeeds. Actors writhe and contort on each other and every set piece, almost everyone disrobes down to their undergarments, cocaine is snorted off of every surface, including a toilet seat, and the company grope themselves (and each other) in every combination before the two hour running time has concluded.
March’s poem and Lippa’s musical are essentially structured as an introduction to each of the colorful guests, before dissolving in to a tale of sex, deception and violence, in rather quick succession.
Allison Bradbury is remarkable, in her professional debut, as Queenie, the hard vaudeville performer and hostess of the evening’s festivities. Dressed in a sequin bra and panties (the over the top, fetish costumes are by Betty O’Hellno), she resembles Madonna (from the Truth or Dare years) and Lady Gaga. On stage for almost the entire evening, she shows tremendous range, be it on one of the up-tempo numbers like “Raise the Roof,” or one of her ballads.
As her abusive lover, Burrs, Justin Mazzella is both alluring and menacing. His breakdown in Act II called to mind one of the Loveland sequences in Sondheim’s Follies and he handled it skillfully with the right amount of both desperation and hysteria.
As Kate, Queenie’s “frenemy,” whose arrival really sets the events of the evening in motion, Jessica Bennett is big-voiced and bold and her first song, “Look at Me Now” is a highlight of the evening. As her lover, Black, Sylvern Groomes, Jr., brings a quiet restraint that juxtaposes nicely with the frenzy of the other goings on. And his voice is just stunning.
The rest of the cast serve Elias’ vision. I particularly enjoyed Valerie Holt as Madeline True, who gets the funniest number in the show, although technical difficulties on opening night made it very hard to hear. Jesse Marciniak as Eddie is also quite good, and whether intentional or not, his “guy next door” body provides a visual joke for his character’s alleged superhuman strength.
Ryan Hasse’s askew unit set is effective and lit in a smoky, dim haze that recalls those late (early?) hours when the celebration of a party is overcome by the first tiny glimpse of daylight. Robert Mintz’s choreography is simple, but impressive and makes maximum use of the small stage at Baltimore Theatre Project. The five-piece band led by Musical Director Ben Shaver is fantastic.
I’m still not entirely sure that resetting a piece that is so tied to a place and time in history was the best decision. But the commitment to it here is unwavering and total and it is to be commended.
“Go big or go home,” they say. And Iron Crow has done that with this impressive and uncompromising season opening production of The Wild Party.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.