Monday, June 20, 2016

A Raunchy 'Wild Party' at San Jose Stage

Carmichael 'CJ' Blankenship as Black, Allison F. Rich as Queenie. All photos by Dave Lepori
San Jose Stage
Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party
June 16, 2016

As it often does, San Jose Stage has found a provocative, quirky musical, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, and given it the royal treatment, turning in a sexy and electric performance.

The Wild Party is a long-form poem by Joseph Moncure March, published in 1928 and filled with that era’s libertine ideas and freedom-stretching urges. It gained newfound interest in 1994 with the publication of a new edition with illustrations by Art Spiegelman.

Lippa, known for his work on The Addams Family musical, debuted The Wild Party in 1999. The use of a poem for source material shows immediate advantages. The opening piece, “Queenie was a Blonde,” is a direct quote of the poem’s opening, and bits of March’s innovative rhyming make appearances throughout, like the rhyming couplets in a Shakespeare play.

Courtney Hatcher as Kate, Noel Anthony as Burrs
The cultural icon that is The Party goes beyond a specific era, and Lippa underscores the universality with his musical choices. (The first hint is the sound of Tony Frye’s electric guitar.) The styles range widely, delving into era-proximate bits of gospel, jazz, blues and vaudeville, but depending largely on modern American Musical Theater tropes to deliver the dramatic goods.

The reason for the party is pretty universal, as well. Queenie (Allison F. Rich) and her vaudeville clown lover Burrs (Noel Anthony) are having third-year couple doldrums and decide on a soiree to kick themselves back into gear. (And we all know what a bad idea that sounds like.) What results, of course, is the age-old tug between keeping the things we have and having the things we want, along with the deadly everpresence of jealousy. At one point, Burrs is chasing a saucy minor (Brittney Monroe), being chased himself by Queenie’s un-loyal friend Kate (Courtney Hatcher), yet dropping all these pleasures at the entrance of Queenie’s new interest, Black (Carmichael ‘CJ’ Blankenship). Such are the unreasonable priorities of love and lust.

Allison F. Rich does a masterful job of moderating Queenie’s temperature, starting the show at a slow smolder, warming up under the hand of her new beau and flaming out in the tragic finale, “How Did We Come to This?” Her voice has real power, but is often at its best in the low, witty quips opened up by Lippa’s artful pauses.

My favorite voice belongs to Noel Anthony as Burrs. His tenor carries a delicious forward quality, bringing a constant edginess to one very erratic clown. His character conducts a fascinating oscillation between pulling himself into the light and diving deeper into the pit.

Noel Anthony as Burrs
As Kate, Courtney Hatcher is pure lightning, especially in the second-act opener, “The Life of the Party,” which begins as Kate wakes up in a bathtub. Being a true party girl, she relishes even this, and her enthusiasm is infectious. (The red sequin dress from costume designer Abra Berman is amazing.) Therese Anne Swain made the most of the show’s most blatantly comic song, Madeline True’s paean to her lesbian predecessors, “An Old Fashioned Love Song.”

CJ Blankenship is both condemned and blessed to play ingenues, with a rich baritone that melts women’s… hearts and a floating head voice that recalls the Ink Spots. He and Brett Blankenship handle the choreography, a constant delight of small, intriguing moves from all eras, delivered by dancers who show nary the slightest hesitation. (A couple standouts were Brittney Monroe and Nathaniel Rothrock, who both have that quality of not just performing but “selling” their moves.) The cast also gives a lot of enthusiasm to the feigned sex acts that keep the party wild. Director David Davalos does a brilliant job of both creating and controlling the chaos.

A couple moments in Lippa’s score stood out: a stunning a capella section in “The Juggernaut” and a quartet, “Poor Child,” that was almost Verdian in its dexterity. The stage mics suffered occasional bouts of distortion, due somewhat to the big voices in the cast (sound design John Koss). Michael Palumbo’s scenic design is an artful combination of chessboard and boxing ring, with plenty of semi-hidden spaces for the bedroom retreats of the classic house party. Conductor/keyboardist Lauren Bevilacqua did a magical job of leading her jazz band, including guitar, bass, drums, reeds and trumpets. (And I’m still trying to figure out where that banjo came from.)

Through July 24th, San Jose Stage, 490 S. First Street, $30-$65, 408/283-7142,

The Stage’s 2016-17 season will include Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present, Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced and Donal O’Kelly’s The Memory Stick.

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera and theater critic and author of eighteen novels, including ThePopcorn Girl (available at


Tony Frye said...

I played the banjo for that one tune.

Michael J. Vaughn said...

Awesome! Couldn't spot it behind that screen. Great job.