The chief flaw of “The Wild Party,” Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s dark, glittering new musical, is one it shares with the gathering it so vividly depicts — it goes on too long. The musical has reportedly been shortened by at least a half-hour during an angst-plagued preview period, and further ruthless cuts and a sharper focus on the show’s central themes might have transformed an impressive but uneven show into a stellar one. As it is, “The Wild Party” is a restlessly percolating, stylish romp through a smoky world of vices and their prices — but one that lacks the emotional punch it could carry.
“Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still/And she danced twice a day in vaudeville” are the opening lines of the 1928 Joseph Moncure March poem that inspired the show, and Gotham theater followers should be familiar with them by now — they’re sung both here and in the season’s previous musical adaptation of the poem, the Manhattan Theater Club production with book, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa.
While LaChiusa and Wolfe’s “Wild Party” is superior in every respect to the previous version, it is also more similar in tone and style than that show was to the current Broadway hit “Chicago.” Its framing as a vaudeville performance — replete with onstage cards announcing acts — is certainly justified by the underbelly-of-showbiz milieu. But the format, in which the characters spend much of their time stepping outside the story, aiming their gimlet eyes and bitter cracks straight at the audience, inevitably feels a bit borrowed from Kander & Ebb’s own 1920s underbelly-of-showbiz musical.
Nonetheless, the theatrical-revue device is employed with wit and energy to introduce the show’s protagonists, the tough-as-nails, sexually voracious Queenie (Toni Collette) and her tougher-than-nails boyfriend Burrs (Mandy Patinkin), who is also a vaudeville performer. They sputter and snap at each other in a winking scene that sets the stage for the evening’s main event, a gin-soaked bash to which they invite all their nearest and dearest, a motley assortment of has-beens and wannabes who parade their tarnished hearts and egos before us in a vibrant, if overextended, series of introductory songs.
Most of the guests arrive at the party in pairs: the ex-boxing champ Eddie (Norm Lewis) and his girl Mae (Leah Hocking), with her jailbait tag-along sister Nadine (Brooke Sunny Moriber); the lesbian Madelaine True (Jane Summerhays) with her nearly catatonic new discovery Sally (Sally Murphy); the apparently incestuous gay brothers Oscar and Phil D’Armano (Nathan Lee Graham and Michael McElroy); the somewhat out-of-place, three-piece-suited Jewish producers Gold and Goldberg (Adam Grupper and Stuart Zagnit); and, finally, Queenie’s viper-tongued best friend Kate (Tonya Pinkins) and her new man, Black (Yancey Arias). Arriving solo are Jackie (Marc Kudisch), an “ambi-sextrous” looker and literary climber, and the faded, jaded stage star Dolores, played with effortless, showstopping elan by that great silken tigress of showbiz, Eartha Kitt.
The musical’s gloriously decayed good looks, and the painterly mise-en-scene of director Wolfe, are one of the most striking achievements of the Broadway season. Set designer Robin Wagner has arranged the punished-looking furnishings of Queenie and Burrs’ apartment on a turntable set inside a hollowed-out, smoke-darkened ballroom. Vestiges of former grandeur cling to tattered, grimy wallpaper and peer gloomily through huge, broken windows. The haunting, delicately calibrated lightingof Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer turns the room into a ghoulish canvas for the revelers’ flickering silhouettes, which leap and dance in frenzied patterns against the walls.
On this very alluring devil’s playground, hearts carefully covered in tinfoil suddenly begin to break. Wolfe and LaChiusa have allowed the emotional pivot of the poem — Queenie’s infidelity — to spread like a virus among the characters, creating a unifying theme for the show. As Patinkin’s Burrs sings in a key song, “Fidelity is a virtue/Too many of you lack/Monogamy can exert you/Keeping track of what goes on/Behind your back…” The authors have also unearthed some intriguing emotional underpinnings in the characters that would pay better dividends if they were more deeply explored. Queenie and Black, who are quickly drawn to each other despite the glowering disapproval of their lovers, sing a touching, muted duet in which they label themselves “damaged goods,” emotional cripples who “take lovers like pills/Just hoping to cure what we know we can’t fix.”
As the show rises to a tense emotional pitch midway through, sexual betrayal and its fiery fallout creates a dangerous, brooding presence that seeps inexorably past the footlights. All the various couples threaten to splinter and regroup — the sexual abandon of this cast of outcasts is driven by a deep longing to belong. But instead of developing this intriguing emotional current and following it straight through to the story’s tragic climax — a violent confrontation between Burrs and Black — the authors allow the show’s momentum to subside. It circles and vamps for a half-hour, with a distracting near-rape subplot and various supporting characters getting unnecessary and thematically repetitive solo numbers — there are far too many songs sung in the same bruised and cynical tone, in fact. The climax, when it finally arrives, registers limply.
LaChiusa’s peppery score is firmly grounded in the music of the period in which the show is set. Brittle, brassy burlesque songs, tuneful Tin Pan Alley ditties, a torchy blues here and a samba there, they tickle the ear with pleasing, time-tested, riffs full of rumbling piano runs and scorching horn bursts. The composer’s lyrics are snappy and clever, if not particularly complex; sometimes they’re a little too on-the-nose, as are portions of LaChiusa and Wolfe’s book.
Although some of the bitchy repartee feels microwaved, the performers generally have vivid material to work with, and they do it justice. Patinkin ably projects Burrs’ energy and glinting menace, and his singing — the sweet falsetto contrasted with a reverberant vibrato — perfectly captures the character’s dueling impulses. Pinkins is all flash and swagger as the world-weary Kate, and most of the supporting performers offer sharply etched, tabloid-vivid portraits. Unfortunately, though Collette sings with surprising stylishness, her Queenie is flat and one-dimensional; she doesn’t convey the warmth that invites emotional investment. Arias’ Black is something of a cypher, as well, perhaps chiefly because his role is underwritten.
Kitt is of course a major asset and the audience’s darling. Her fur-lined growl and razor-edged timing turn each line of dialogue into a home run. “You can take a million lovers, but you’re on your own when it ends,” she sings with cool fervor at one point, nailing the lonely truth that plagues most of the guests at “The Wild Party.” It’s not the first or last time someone in the show makes the point, but when Kitt makes a point, it stays made.