Review: Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party at NY City Center

Adriana Nocco

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.

Steven Pasquale and Sutton Foster in The Wild PartyProduction images by Joan Marcus

Steven Pasquale and Sutton Foster in The Wild PartyProduction images by Joan Marcus

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.

Review: “I’d love to love but need to write”: A New Brain at NY City Center

Adriana Nocco

In “An Invitation To Sleep In My Arms,” one of many songs written by William Finn for his musical entitled A New Brain, Roger Delli-Bovi, Gordon Schwinn’s boyfriend, implores Schwinn to spend the last hospital bed-ridden night before his craniotomy by Roger’s side instead of with his pen and paper (attempting to write a song for his stubborn boss). Schwinn wishes to say yes to Roger and comply, but feels compelled to write because he fears that he will lose his mental faculties after the operation and that this might be the one chance he has left to extract at least one song that is truly great from his mind. So, Schwinn replies, “I’d love to love but need to write.”

This seemingly simple phrase speaks to the journey that changes Gordon Schwinn during the course of A New Brain quite well. Schwinn sings it during “An Invitation To Sleep In My Arms,” which takes place during Act 1 (before his operation), but by the end of the musical (after his operation, which proves successful), Schwinn has learned to cherish his loved ones more than ever before. He realizes that his appreciation for them and for life are what will aid him in his slow recovery, and that once his outlook on life is grounded in what truly matters, he will be able to write again. 

William Finn and James Lapine’s A New Brain is largely an autobiographical tale (and cathartic to tell, I’m sure), based on a traumatic experience that Finn underwent. Gordon Schwinn, its central character (William Finn’s character “alter ego”), is an aspiring songwriter who, at the beginning of the musical, wishes to make a difference and be remembered through his writing more than anything.

However, he feels stuck. He is struggling to achieve his “big break” by writing a song for children’s television producer and personality Mr. Bungee (clearly ironically named as such due to the fact that he dresses as a frog while on the air), and is definitely frustrated about his less-than-idyllic situation. Schwinn is working at the piano with his hung-up (yet resigned, for Schwinn is gay) ex-girlfriend turned best friend, Rhoda, when all of a sudden he collapses and hits his head on the floor. An ambulance whisks Schwinn away to the hospital, where he is told that he has an arteriovenous malformation in his brain; essentially, he must undergo an operation or risk loss of his mental functionality and possible death. During his time in the hospital, Mimi (his mother), Roger, and Rhoda try their best to support him while simultaneously coping with their own fears and anxieties concerning his situation and its possibly grim outcome; this proves itself to be especially difficult for them the night before his operation occurs. A New Brain is a story of an experience that knocked Schwinn (Finn) down, both literally and figuratively, but more importantly, it is about how he and his loved ones came together to go about picking up the pieces.

At times, the show felt a little bit rushed, perhaps too fast-paced for my taste; I found myself wishing that some of A New Brain’s more crucial moments had more time to settle. However, that being said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt that, with the help of the show’s creative team, William Finn’s emotional truth certainly shone through the story, even during its “over-the-top” moments. For example, in “Brain Dead,” which takes place while Schwinn is in a comatose state after his operation, imaginary, gauze-clad zombies dance around with Schwinn inside his mind. At one point, the song stops short, one zombie drops to the floor (now an inanimate corpse), and two others drag it offstage before the song resumes. Even though this moment was dark and morbid in a way (touching upon the fact that Schwinn could quite possibly die), it made me laugh, and I realized that it exemplified what A New Brain’s intention was all along. The best way to address the grief that we feel during dire circumstances is through laughter, and for me, “Brain Dead” felt like a testament to this universal method that humans use to address and cope with grief. 

On that note, I especially loved the fact that A New Brain purposely blurs the lines between “actual” reality and Schwinn’s reality. I believe that “reality” is a subjective term, and due to the fact that perception is influenced by our individualized observations, thoughts, and feelings, our perception of what is real becomes increasingly and especially unclear during our most emotionally charged and our most trying times. For instance, throughout Schwinn’s time in the hospital, Mr. Bungee (played by Dan Fogler, previously known for his Tony-winning performance as William Barfée in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) appears to him dressed in green attire from head to toe, complete with an ironic frog hat and gloves (and the stage lighting changes to green accordingly during his entrances). Bungee taunts him, symbolizing Schwinn’s struggle to accept the fact that his condition might terminate his ability to write (along with his mental faculties) before he can write something significant. Schwinn is the only person who interacts with Bungee, which leads audiences to believe that this version of Bungee is a hallucination, but for Schwinn, he is a very real being, and Schwinn interacts with him throughout his time in the hospital. This Bungee also leads a song entitled “Don’t Give In” towards the end of the show, and in the process leads Schwinn to come out of his coma and back towards his consciousness and loved ones (signifying Schwinn’s newfound ability to let go of his apprehension concerning his writing and recognize that his writing should be inspired by appreciation for love and life). 

I also love the fact that the lens through which each additional character in A New Brain is presented to audiences is how each one copes with Schwinn’s illness or how it affects their life in some way. For instance, a number sung by Mimi, entitled “Throw It Out,” demonstrates how Schwinn’s angst and seemingly perpetual thirst for knowledge and creative fulfillment has led his own worried mother, in her heightened emotional state, to believe that books are the reason why he is having health issues in the first place. She is deeply protective of her son, but feels restless because she wants something to blame and something to do to help him (even though, as we all know, diseases like Schwinn’s are unpredictable and there is often nothing that anyone can do to stop them from running their course). Ultimately, the situation is simply not within her control, and this frustrates her beyond belief. So, during “Throw It Out,” she throws away all of the books that Schwinn keeps at home, for in these circumstances which cause her to feel helpless, this is all she can do to purge herself of her frustration and feel as if she is doing something that will affect the outcome of her son’s situation. Then, towards the end of the show, a homeless lady named Lisa finds the books on the street and ironically tries to sell them to Schwinn and Roger (after Schwinn has regained consciousness). Schwinn realizes that they are his books immediately and at first desperately attempts to get them back from her for free. But, with Roger’s help, Schwinn accepts the fact that they are “just books” and that, in the grand scheme of things, he can survive without them; he still has love in his life and, thankfully, a “new brain” that he will be able to use to continue his quest for knowledge and creative fulfillment for a very long time.

This particular production of A New Brain possessed an all-star creative team, and definitely had a talented, proficient cast with indubitable chops. For me, standouts within A New Brain’s supporting cast were the always funny, anxious yet unforced Ana Gasteyer as Mimi, Rema Webb, who has a showstopping voice that made me leap to my feet, as the homeless lady, and the hilarious, quirky scene-stealer and fantastic singer by the name of Josh Lamon as the “nice nurse.” However, A New Brain would not have been able to function without a strong core, and I felt that Jonathan Groff as Schwinn was that core. He was uneasy and agitated while somehow also sincere and sweet, and his brilliant yet unassuming acting and vocals lent a sensitivity to Schwinn that made me want to root for him. 

I certainly hope that A New Brain returns to the New York stage again in the future, for an extended run this time. In the city that never sleeps, we definitely need a show that grounds people, encouraging them to stop for a minute, take stock of what is truly important in life, and “love to love.”