Review: ‘The Wild Party’ at the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies at The Clarice

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Dim lights, warm hues and the soft murmur of conversation and clanking glasses lured us into Queenie’s – the decadent speakeasy formerly known as The Clarice’s Kogod Theatre. Waiters greeted guests, took their coats at the door and showed them to small tables throughout the theatre. A collection of more than 300 Prohibition-era labels lined the shelves behind the curved bar, flanked by period light fixtures. A beautiful art deco mural backdropped the stage, scores of black-and-white framed photographs adorned the walls, and crates of Mellwood Whisky were stacked beside a sign reinforcing the 18th Amendment.

The cast of 'The Wild Party.' Photo by Stan Barouh.
The cast of ‘The Wild Party.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Emily Lotz’s immaculate set design and Rob Siler’s dramatic lighting truly transported us back to 1928, where we were guests at a never-ending soiree.  Directed by Alvin Mayes and Scot Reese, The University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ production of The Wild Party took audiences on a journey to a time of individualism and excess – a time not so distant from the world today.

The Wild Party is based on a poem of the same name by Joseph Moncure March that was published in The New Yorker in 1928 and later banned for its sexual explicitness. Republished by Art Spiegelman in 1994, the poem inspired two musicals that both premiered in 2000: Michael John LaChiusa’s Broadway version and Andrew Lippa’s Off-Broadway musical, which the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies chose to perform.

Queenie (Monica Albizo), a Vaudeville dancer, seems to have found her match in Burrs (Kyle Travers), a Vaudeville clown. Over time, however, Burrs’ violent nature becomes more frightening than appealing, so Queenie decides to throw a party to rekindle their relationship. A menagerie of guests joins the couple for an endless night of drinking, dancing and debauchery. But trouble arises when Queenie’s spirited frenemy Kate (Aryssa Burrs) arrives with her newest conquest, a young man named Mr. Black (Morgan Scott). As the night wanes, Queenie finds herself drawn to this sensitive stranger, while Kate uses this opportunity to inch closer to Burrs.  Tension grows and tempers flare until, like the roaring 20’s themselves, the party comes to a tragic end.

Upon hearing the title of the show, one might expect the party to be a little more, well, wild. But Lippa’s interpretation is more introspective, favoring intimate conversations over rowdy crowd scenes and personal soliloquies, accompanied by a simple piano and drums, over flashy ensemble numbers.  It’s a question whether the party is even much of a party at all.  The show’s strongest number, “Poor Child,” highlights the tension brewing among Queenie, Burrs, Black and Kate, and the staging lent to this powerful piece.

Kyle Travers is convincingly detestable as the vehement Burrs. Monica Albizo is a conflicted Queenie who grapples with her decision to stay in this abusive relationship, wondering if “Maybe I like It This Way.”  It is at times frustrating to watch these two often unlikable characters spiral through a cycle of abuse. Travers and Albizo deliver an emotional performance of “What is it About Her?”.

Other standout performances helped liven my spirits. From the moment she burst onstage, flask in hand, Aryssa Burrs charmed as Kate, dazzling the audience with her rich, full voice.  She has the knack for singing pop and jazz music exceptionally well without compromising her vocal technique, and her voice soared in “Life of the Party.”

The cast of 'The Wild Party.' Photo by Stan Barouh.
The cast of ‘The Wild Party.’ Photo by Stan Barouh.

Montana Monardes and Erin Valade delighted as twins Oscar and Phil d’Armondo, who performed a comical musical number about Adam and Eve as part of “A Wild, Wild Party.”  The audience loved Whitney Geohagan, as Madelaine, a professed lesbian, who entertained with “An Old-Fashioned Love Story.”

Though the script dragged at times and the vocals and dancing could have been more polished, The Clarice’s production of The Wild Party captivated me and left me thinking.  How much darkness hides beneath human vices, lavish parties and rampant consumerism?  Are these displays merely facades to mask our loneliness?  Beneath the glitz and glamour, the quiet, intimate conversations have a greater impact. Audience members won’t regret paying a visit to Queenie’s.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 15-minute intermission.

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The Wild Party plays through November 11, 2016, at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Kogod Theatre at the intersection of Stadium Drive and Route 193 (University Boulevard), in College Park, MD. For tickets, call (301) 405-2787, or purchase them online.