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Arts and Entertainment

What's In A Musical? The Wild Party

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"I think people can be very territorial about opera and musical theatre and what they want from the respective genres. A lot of music theater people want their musicals to be in the standard form of Damn Yankees or a Rodgers and Hammerstein type musical.
But if you really think about it, the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were extremely risky and daring and are as close to being American operas as you got in that period. Today they are seen as being a traditional form, but when they were written they were rather radical, while appealing to a mass audience at the same time."

-Composer and lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, in an interview with Talkin' Broadway

Michael John LaChiusa's musicals often address darker American themes like death, racism, ambition, and love that becomes violent. The Blank Theatre Company is putting on a limited run of The Wild Party, LaChiusa's Jazz Age musical, at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre through November 20. Short of going to New York or taking a time warp to the twenties, this show gives us some of the greatest musical theater in Los Angeles.

The Wild Party got a hard reception when it first opened in New York in 2000. Conservative Broadway audiences wanted more Dorothy and less gin, skin, and sin with their musical theatre, and the original Broadway run of The Wild Party closed after only 68 performances. (The original poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh on which the musical is based was censored in its own time.)

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Los Angeles has already been more receptive. The performance LAIST saw was almost packed on a Wednesday night. This is an edgy, seductive, nasty musical, complete with sex, drugs, bootleg liquor, an orgy and a murder - and the music itself is hard, fast jazz. It's L.A. Confidential meets the Roaring Twenties, and all in a room in New York with three bottles of bathtub gin.

Vaudeville singer Queenie (Valarie Pettiford), a black performer in whiteface, and her boyfriend the vaudeville clown Burrs (Eric Anderson), a white man who does a blackface act, decide to have a party. It's as simple as that. Everyone's invited, from Madalaine the lesbian (Kirsten Chandler) and her passed-out lover Sally (Daisy Eagan), to the gay black songwriting duo of Phil and Oscar (Nathan Lee Graham and Daren A. Herbert) to ex-boxers, fourteen-year-old wannabes, and a pair of Jewish producers trying to move uptown and shortening their names to Gold and Golden.

The beautiful Queenie flirts with every man at the party trying to make Burrs jealous. She also pokes fun at a washed-up actress, Dolores Montoya (Sally Kellerman) who used to be famous and is trying to regain her former glory. It's Queenie's party, and she seems to keep the sex and violence somewhat under control. But when her best friend Kate (Jane Lanier) enters with a mysterious man named only Black (Innis Casey) a love quadrangle becomes violent as Queenie and Black fall in love with each other. "Black is a Moocher," as Kate sings, and his sexual hustle is a perfect match for Queenie.

It's easy to pass over Burrs at first as a two-bit vaudeville comedian, not good enough for Queenie. Kate, Dolores, and everyone else are quick enough to tell Queenie he's a loser. But Eric Anderson's dangerous performance reminds us why little kids have nightmares about clowns. From roasting all the members of the party about their unrequited loves and lovers, to violently assaulting Queenie, to crucifying himself against a wall as he sings "How Many Women In the World," Anderson's grotesque physicality turns the party sinister.

The party breaks up when Jackie (Sam Zeller), a playboy, tries to rape Mae (Julie Dixon Jackson)'s little sister Nadine (Sasha Wexler). Everyone goes home except Burrs, Queenie, Kate, and Black. Burrs collapses behind a chest while Queenie and Black cry on a bed together. Somehow these two moochers, these two con artists, have fallen in love with each other. ("Somehow" is no description of their three-hankie duet, "People Like Us," but you'll have to go see it yourself.)

"'The Wild Party' deals with a lot of issues of racism--the underlying racism in all of us. You can try to deny it and say we're passed that, but it's not true. And when you bring up these issues in the theater, people really don't like to go and hear that and see it." - MJL

Burrs emerges from behind the chest, his face grotesquely smeared in blackface makeup again, and he breaks into Queenie's bedroom and threatens Black with a gun. We don't want to give away the ending, but Queenie ends up alone. In a defiant gesture of anger, she pulls off her blonde wig, smears her whiteface makeup, and stands, abandoned but triumphant. She's lost her boyfriend - a white man - and her lover, a white man named Black. We've seen couples both inter and intra-racial breaking down over the course of the night. Queenie defies all of them, embracing her own color and her own self, even as she loses everything she had.

Michael John LaChiusa is used to being able to write forAudra MacDonald, one of the greatest sopranos of this or any age in theater. (We first heard his music on her album Way Back to Paradise, which is named after a LaChiusa song from the musical Marie Christine.) His musicals feature strong female characters with demanding vocal parts. Thankfully, Valarie Pettiford (Queenie) is more than up to the challenge of starring in a LaChiusa production. She's featured as a solo singer in ten numbers in two hours, sings with the company, and has to dance complex jazz at the same time. She makes it all look as cool as an ice cube in a glass.

Jane Lanier is perfectly chilled and controlled as Kate, and the scene-stealing, silent Daisy Eagan is channeling either Patience on a monument or Liberty on the barricades as she sings "After Midnight Dies." Less strong are the almost inaudible Sally Kellerman as Dolores Montoya (although her slinky seduction of Gold and Golden is hilarious) and Innis Casey as Black, who has the voice to match Queenie but not the aggressive sexuality. But most of the cast stands up to the material, and the result - especially in loud ensemble numbers like "Gin" and "Wild" - is breathtaking. When was the last time you heard a LA crowd keep applauding so loud the piano player (David O) had to cut them off?

"..We need to have room for shows that talk about politics and what's going on in the country right now and the problems that we haven't solved." - MJL, Talkin' Broadway

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We haven't solved the problem of race in America, or sex and sexuality. We haven't solved arts or education or politics, and we certainly haven't solved hurricanes and poverty and the racism that happens in the wake of disasters. We haven't even solved the everyday stereotypes in our own entertainment, the lingering memories of blackface and racial impersonation. And we haven't solved the problem of public funding for the arts. But we have solved one question - what to see on Saturday night. As Burrs says, "Go fix your face. You gotta get ready."

The Wild Party's book was co-written by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe. It was directed by Daniel Henning, with detailed choreography by Jane Lanier. Plays Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 and 7 pm through Nov. 20 at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. near Wilcox. There are no Friday performances. Parking: street, and sparse. Laist likes to think we know how to avoid parking tickets by now, but we're forty bucks short after this show. (We swear, it didn't say permit when we LEFT the car...) But it was a small price to pay to hear this music live. Tickets are available at (323) 661-9827, or online at the Blank Theatre website.