THE BASICS: A jazz-age ensemble musical depicting a cocaine, bathtub gin, and lust driven Hollywood-style party one night and the morning after when things got a wee bit out of control. Presented by Second Generation Theatre at the New Phoenix Theatre On The Park, 95 Johnson Park, Buffalo, NY 14201. Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, through June 28th. Open seating. Run time 2-1/2 hours including one 15 minute intermission. Wine and beer available with a suggested donation of $3; soda and water, $1.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The 1928 book-length narrative poem by New Yorker magazine editor and later Hollywood writer Joseph Moncure March “The Wild Party” was “Banned in Boston!” (and also inspired the novelist William Burroughs to become a writer) and has inspired at least one feature movie and two musicals. This version of “The Wild Party” with book, music, and lyrics by Andrew Lippa premiered off-Broadway in 2000. The show opens with Queenie, the blond bombshell, and Burrs, the rough vaudeville clown, who are bored with life and love until they hook up for three years of lustful passion. But as their ardor cools, Queenie decides, and Burrs concurs, to hold a wild party with a variety of “Hollywood” guests (a predatory lesbian, two lover-brothers, a thug, his moll, etc.). The party is crashed by Kate and her date Black, which is when things start to get out of Queenie’s and Burrs’ control. While not quite at the level of “Chicago” if you liked that musical, you’ll like this one. Everything – the set, the lighting, the dancing – was first rate. Don’t miss this one.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: First honors go to Michael Walline for direction and fabulous, high energy choreography. The ensemble dances were snappy and, in a small space like the New Phoenix where there is no margin for error, really well rehearsed. If the members of this ensemble don’t all lose 15 pounds by the end of the run, I’ll be amazed. And “The Juggernaut” dance is just over the top.
While we went to see Matt Witten (we’re big fans) as Burrs, we were absolutely bowled over by Arianne Davidow as Queenie, who, not having read the bios in the playbill before the show, we assumed had been brought in from New York City. In Act II there is an extended scene in Queenie’s bathroom in which all four of the leads (Witten, Davidow, Lauren Alaimo as Kate, and Steve Copps as Black) interact and it was just theater magic, all four Buffalo actors being at the top of their game, but walking to our car, my partner and I just could not get over the acting chops of Niagara University trained Arianne Davidow in that scene. I wish I’d gotten her autograph so ten years from now I might sell it on E-Bay.
The music direction by Allan Paglia was tight, very jazzy, and, apart from electronic keyboard, the band used real instruments (yaay!). The musicians were all great, but special note must be taken of trumpeter Matt Caputy (a student of the BPO’s amazing Geoffrey Hardcastle) who really made that brass growl, purr, moan, and stomp!
The set designed by Loraine O’Donnell is very inspired. I’m always amazed at what designers can do with the small New Phoenix stage and this didn’t disappoint, including a piano sort of “built in” to the stage by Matthew Routhier. Of course, what makes it all work is the lighting by Chris Cavanagh, not only to direct your attention but also to set the various moods or feelings. One small nit: since it’s open seating, I would advise grabbing a seat directly facing the raised stage and not necessarily on the left or right, only because you’ll have to crane your neck to see some of the action.
Costumes by Kelly Copps were appropriate for the era and, despite the players not wearing a lot of clothing in a musical where there is a lot of physical movement (and even an orgy), there were no “wardrobe malfunctions” other than a couple of suspender snaps coming undone.
A few comments about the cast, in order of appearance: We’ve mentioned the very talented and lovely Arianne Davidow as Queenie, and the hyper-masculine (and always a little scary in any role he takes) Matt Witten who certainly brings the element of danger that this musical demands. Jacob Albarella as Kegs and Bobby Cooke as Sam are fine in their roles as chorus members/guests. Local comedienne Charmagne Chi is great fun as the predatory lesbian Madeline True, whose “An Old-Fashioned Love Story” describes her idea of a successful sexual conquest. There were many hoots and hollers for that one on opening night. Eric Rawski is a big guy, like Matt Witten, with whom he does have an on-stage fight, but he brings a sweetness to his role of Eddie the thug, which pairs up perfectly with another Buffalo favorite, Arin Lee Dandes, who makes up in energy what she lacks in height, as Mae, Eddie’s moll. These two, although physically worlds apart, bring the most normal, loving relationship to the musical. London Lee plays Jackie the mute, a dancer, and he may be a little big for the role which at one point has him dancing among the passed-out bodies of the party guests, in the dark, wearing street shoes.
Jamie Boswell as Oscar d’Armano and Matthew Iwanski as Phil d’Armano, the two lovers who are also brothers (hey, it’s inspired by Hollywood), bring a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to their roles in which they are supposed to be more than gay. (How do you research those roles?) Kudos to Amy Jakiel as Dolores the hooker, who is sort of the leader of the orgy scene wearing, well, not all that much. Sabrina Kahwaty as Nadine, the minor, is another NU theater major who really represents that program well. Mentioned earlier, Lauren Alaimo is Kate, a high energy hottie in fishnet stockings, who really belts out “The Life of the Party” standing on the piano. And Steve Copps is cool as the enigmatic, gentleman known only as Black, who’s not afraid of Burrs, but also reveals his sensitive side. It’s a very tough role, since it’s almost all reactive, but Copps pulls it off.
In sum, a great night of sweaty, sexy theater.
Photo: Michael Walline Photography
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!