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There’s something refreshingly honest about the title of Andrew Lippa’s musical The Wild Party. Instead of reaching for some inflated title like The Degradation of Vaudeville Culture, Lippa comes right out and tells you what you’re going to get: a wild party. And the message is not lost on North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre (NRACT) – they deliver on what the title promises.
The story itself isn’t particularly interesting. Burrs (James Ilsley) and Queenie (Anne Caitlin Donohue) are vaudeville performers who decide to launch a wild party to spice up their stale, frustrated relationship. Everyone enjoys the debauchery for a while, until flamboyant Kate (Melanie Carviou) and outsider Black (Ben Muller) show up. Burrs and Kate get together, Black and Queenie get together, and – you guessed it – Burrs and Queenie fall apart. It’s a narrative of decline, in which self-indulgent excess corrodes the possibility of any meaningful, lasting relationships. The final scene bears all the marks of a college frat party gone wrong (or right, depending on your perspective): half-empty liquor bottles lying around, clothes strewn about, and a palpable smell of shame hanging in the air.
What The Wild Party lacks in story, it makes up for in music and sheer spectacle. Lippa’s score is at its strongest in those raucous, rambunctious moments when the music can really swing. Music Director David Oberst consistently found the rhythmic groove that makes jazz so physically irresistible, and more than a few audience members could be seen dancing along in their seats. Music and spectacle coalesced most powerfully in the Act I number called – go figure – “A Wild, Wild, Party.” The drums boom-chicked, the ensemble snapped and clapped, a tap dance solo broke out, still others did the Charleston… all while singing about what a wild, wild party this was. It was a vintage Broadway moment, when sensory overload can actually be quite wonderful.
Vocally and dramatically, the female leads outperformed their male counterparts. Carviou started off strong, belting out Kate’s music while lustily sauntering around the stage. But in Act II, the belting turned into shouting, and the laryngeal pressure thus applied made her sound grating and occasionally flat. Donohue, as Queenie, was simply on a different vocal level than everyone else. She possesses a free, resonant voice, which she took care of throughout the performance. Because she sings on the breath and focuses her tones with real energy and support, her voice sounded well preserved, even after singing more music than anyone else. Ilsley and Muller each did a respectable job as Burrs and Black, Ilsley being the better actor (his clown scene was haunting), Muller the better singer.
By and large, the set, sound, and lighting worked well. Oberst’s band crammed itself into the top corner of the stage, becoming a believable part of the wild party going on underneath. In Act I, the band drowned out much of the dialogue and sung words. At intermission, it seemed that the sound techs overcompensated, which resulted in an imbalance in the other direction. This was opening night, though, and I imagine a better balance will soon be struck. Various lighting colors helped create a diversity of moods, and the use of a strobe light during the Burrs/Black fight scene was a nice touch.
Overall, this is solid community theatre. It may not be Broadway, but it also isn’t your kid’s high school production – there’s real talent on display here. And no matter what, it’s always fun to enjoy a wild party without waking up hung over the next day.
The Wild Party continues through Sunday, March 23. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.