In my Stage Combat class at AADA last week, my incredible teacher, Dan Renkin, got into a discussion with my fellow students and I about how humans perceive scenes while serving as spectators of theatre and the various types of emotion that are capable of being evoked within said scenes. People perceive theatrical movement in various ways, depending upon which part of the stage the blocking of a theatrical production is set in (let alone all the other factors involved). The same exact blocking could be perceived differently if performed on stage right as opposed to on stage left, according to Dan, and we tested that theory in class.
Since Westerners perceive narrative structures (in books, etc.) as moving from left to right, we (often subconsciously) are affected quite differently by blocking on the left side of the stage than by blocking on the right; it seems that we perceive, say, one person following another towards the left side of the stage as less ominous than one person following another towards the right side of the stage.
So, I am able to recognize the fact that when I saw the opening night Encores performance of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party (not to be confused with LaChiusa’s version) at the New York City Center on July 15th, at the very end of the show, my perception actually became ambiguous due to a specific blocking choice. Queenie (played by Broadway baby and triple threat Sutton Foster) walked straight down center stage with a gun in her hand, facing upstage with her back to the audience, and as the sound of sirens from a police car blared, Queenie’s future seemed unclear to me. This purposefully ambiguous ending, which left the audience in suspense about what Queenie’s fate would be, was rather intriguing to me. In fact, I find Lippa’s The Wild Party to be quite intriguing in general, and was intrigued and more than pleased by the way it was presented by Encores last week.
At the beginning of the musical, spectators are informed that it is the roaring 20’s and Queenie, a famous vaudeville performer with trademark blonde hair, and Burrs, a violent (sexually and otherwise) vaudevillian clown, were happily living together as a couple for a long time, feeling as if they had met each other’s match. However, they are no longer happy; Queenie is now frightened by Burrs’ violence, and when she does not wish to have sex with him, he forces himself upon her roughly and calls her derogatory names. Queenie proposes, “Out Of The Blue,” that she and Burrs throw a “wild party,” so that they can rediscover the chemistry and excitement that they (she) originally felt in their relationship. Burrs agrees, and a wide array of bizarre guests arrives at their house for a night that no one will ever be able to forget.
The Wild Party’s complexity of tone fascinates me, and I felt that the Encores cast replicated it magnificently. Although Queenie claims to be trying to save her relationship with Burrs by throwing a party, she is actually trying to escape the dark reality of her unhealthy relationship with him by doing the one thing she and Burrs make a living doing and know how to do better than anything else: entertaining. The party is, at its core, a performance that has been constructed in order to mask and run away from a sinister truth. However, everyone at the party has an agenda, and Queenie, Burrs, and two other major characters, Kate and Mr. Black, have agendas (some of which are more secretive than others) that involve each other and cause them to become intertwined in a sort of “love rectangle.” As the night goes on, individual circumstances, which are all connected in some way, complicate further and intensify, and drugs, sex, and alcohol make the events feel disjointed and increasingly unclear; everything is spiraling out of control (this is reflected through the disjointed, complex nature of The Wild Party’s songs).
Additionally, audience members learn that there is actually no way for them to be sure of how well Queenie and Burrs actually know their bizarre, mysterious party guests, which plays into the artifice of the entire situation (entertainment as escape). The performance ultimately ends tragically, for it backfires and brings Burrs and Queenie (and others who have become involved as well) face to face with their issues: one can only try to escape for so long before the stakes heighten to a point of no return.
I felt that the genuineness that Sutton Foster brought to the role of Queenie served it well; this Queenie, try as she might to perform her way out of her situation, could not help but show us her true, conflicted self. She was confident but also uncertain at the same time, for she knew her relationship with Burrs was wrong and felt a strong attraction to a handsome guest her friend Kate had brought to the party, Mr. Black. However, at the same time, she could not seem to shake her feelings for Burrs entirely; there was just something about him that made her tick. Foster’s Queenie’s manipulation of the events involving her at the party seemed to stem from a genuine need to feel loved in a healthy way and a genuine confusion concerning her simultaneous attraction and revulsion towards Burrs. Her Queenie was jaded, but also demonstrated that no matter how jaded she became, her need to be loved and her humanity remained intact.
The other three major players, Burrs, Kate, and Mr. Black, were played by three more unbelievably skilled performers: Steven Pasquale, Joaquina Kalukango, and Brandon Victor Dixon, respectively. Pasquale’s Burrs filled me with disgust, but when I witnessed his vulnerable, desperate, deep sadness, especially during an amazing performance of “Let Me Drown,” he filled me with empathy as well. He possesses an earth-shattering, tremulous voice and some serious acting chops. Kalukango’s jaw-dropping voice and simultaneously playful and tenacious take on Kate made for a fantastic combination, and I found myself constantly looking forward to seeing and hearing more of Kalukango throughout The Wild Party. Her renditions of “Look At Me Now” and “The Life of the Party” were showstopping; I am definitely going to keep an eye out for her in the future, for she is a performer well worth watching. Last but most certainly not least was Dixon’s Black, whose vocals sent chills down my spine and whose performance gripped and tugged on my heartstrings the entire time. He is a forced to be reckoned with as well. I felt that Ryan Andes’ Eddie, Talene Monahon’s Mae, and Miriam Shor (fun fact: the original Yitzhak in Hedwig and the Angry Inch)’s Madelaine True were praiseworthy as well; they completely commanded the stage during their numbers, cleverly executed their performances, and were absolutely hilarious.
It is honestly incredibly rare for me to feel that there is no weak link within a cast, but Encores’ The Wild Party’s cast proved to be a rare exception for me. It possessed some of the most consistently phenomenal vocals I have ever seen in a musical theatre production, the acting and dancing was on point, and the entire cast (especially the four major players) was simply unbelievable. I also was impressed by the production’s choreography, clever direction, lighting and sound design, and felt that a production of its caliber could easily be transferred to Broadway based upon quality. (I am actually in awe of and astounded by the fact that it was put together in the extremely short period of time that it was.) Encores’ production of The Wild Party was a triumph, and I feel that it along with the rest of this year’s season of Encores productions has been raising the bar extremely high for future seasons. All I can say is, bravo, and I sincerely wish I could leap to my feet again during the curtain call of this production, but this time as a member of a Broadway audience.