The 20th century American poet and essayist Joseph Moncure Marsh’s The Wild Party is a singular piece of American poetry. Capturing the seamy-steamy atmosphere of a Prohibition-era blow out, it is lurid, epic, and written in a jazzy doggerel verse. March doesn’t even try to lay claim to a modernism that he was so clearly racing ahead of. Eliot, Pound, Crane, and Stevens might have filched bits of pop culture to give their poems a little shock of the real, but March’s masterpiece was the authentic thing -- slimy, violent, alive, and cheap in its intentions and effects.
Translating trashy art from one form to another is tricky business, and the American musical’s roots have tended towards Sound of Music wholesomeness, rather than March’s violent vision of love. But composer/lyricist/book writer Andrew Lippa’s musical version of March's classic -- also entitled The Wild Party -- catches it all and plays a few tricks of its own along the way. It’s as nutty and chancy as the poem, and in some ways more expansive, loose, and American in feel.
March found something mythic in the love story between showgirl Queenie and her clown of a boyfriend, Burrs, who actually is a clown. The role is played by a commanding Paul Grant Hovannes in Ray of Light Theatre's production. You can feel the killer and the comic in Burr's name, especially in the the way it slides off the tongue when Queenie (a fine Jocelyn Pickett) sings his name throughout the show. Every time you hear Burrs’ name, it jolts; those rrrrrr’s smear contempt.
What we’re here for, though, is a party -- the cure Queenie and Burrs seek for their failing relationship. And Lippa is an obliging host, delivering the goods with the slick verve of the slimiest paparazzi. Everything is frenzied, and yet each moment is vivid, distinct, and alive. The score, a mélange of jazz, blues, show tunes, rock, pop ballads, anything that gets Lippa to the brutal core of Queenie and Burrs’ desperate love, is loose yet elaborately structured.
And so Lippa can blindside you with real feeling, as if sleaze and an anything goes attitude were the fastest way to our hearts. When the mysterious Black (a sharp and understated Ramond Thomas) sings of his attraction to and despair for Queenie in his beautiful ballad, “Poor Child," the broad, archetypal outlines of the characters turn shocking and real. The same is true when Queenie sings of Burrs’ violence, “Maybe I Like It This Way,” or Burrs’ scream of “Nooooooooooooooooo!” at the end of the tiki lounge-inspired, “What Is It About Her.” These are real people, not jokes, and so we can suffer with them. And Party. And ruin our lives.
Like Marsh’s doggerel verse, Lippa’s Wild Party is highly structured and always on the verge of spinning out of control. And the same compliment should be extended to Ray of Light’s vibrant, propulsive production. It's not perfect and sometimes the acting and staging falters. But in their desire to get at the burning soul of real people, of real feeling, and of why self-destruction is sometimes preferable to just going on, the cast and crew give us a wild party that March would recognize -- trashy, alive, and game to risk everything.
The Wild Party plays at the Victoria Theater in San Francisco through Saturday, Jun. 11. For tickets and information head here.
Also, San Jose Stage opens its own production of The Wild Party on Wednesday, Jun. 1. The show runs through Sunday, Jul. 28. Find out more about this South Bay production here.