Murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery. Those seven nouns open the 1975 Kander and Ebb musical “Chicago” about two vaudeville murderesses, an ironic primer to the devilishly fun evening that follows. “All those things we hold near and dear to our hearts,” a sexy, wry dancer concludes before the orchestra blasts into its first of many jazz sirens.
This primer also resonates with Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party,” presented by Second Generation Theatre at the New Phoenix Theatre. Based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem about a debaucherous party of prohibition-era vaudevillians, and set against a backdrop of lust, love and blood, it is a raucous night from dusk ‘till dawn.
The comparisons between the two shows are obvious enough on paper, but even more apparent in the hands of director/choreographer Michael Walline, whose Fossesque aesthetic infuses every note, step, line and sequined bead with brutal irony and seductive contradiction. Where Lippa’s score blares and hollers, Walline’s choreography tiptoes and sulks. His committed ensemble is part Greek chorus, part internal monologue. They are at times German expressionists, frozen and bare, and French clowns, exacerbated at the atrocities around them. Fosse’s trademark tableaus on film (“Cabaret”) and stage (“Sweet Charity”) resurface here with sizzle and oomph.
Walline’s chorus is the most fascinating part of his production, even if they lose steam too early in the evening. To be fair, Lippa’s flimsy book is riddled with pacing problems. It desperately stretches a simple enough love triangle – or is it a square? – into melodrama and vacant pathos, while giving inconsequential supporting characters some of the best numbers. Charmagne Chi’s “An Old-Fashioned Love Story” is bawdy and bold, and dripping with Chi’s comedic talent. Arin Lee Dandes and Eric Rawski’s adorable “Two of a Kind” is many kinds of cute.
But it’s a clumsy show no matter how you shake it. Lippa’s score evokes its jazz roots well enough, but also infamously employs electric guitar and pop vocal arrangements; pastiche goes awry. Walline underscores a number of Lippa’s disparate tropes, evoking Bohemian sit-in and Roman bathhouse, Spanish telenovela and Shakespearean tragedy, Broadway production number and “American Idol” competition. At its best, it distracts us from Lippa’s shortcomings as a storyteller; at its worst, it’s disparate and derivative.
More confounding than anything, though, are the performances of three of our four lead actors. All fine, accomplished, capable storytellers, I am a big fan of them all, even Arianna Davidow, whose breakout as the illustrious Queenie won’t soon be forgotten. Matt Witten and Steve Copps seem ill suited as the angry clown Burrs and debonair savior Black, respectively. Each appeared opening night with much distance.
Davidow is a pristine Queenie, the porcelain blonde chorine who hosts this wild party for the expressed purpose of enraging her angry clown boyfriend, Burrs, played by Witten. And man, can she sing. But Queenie is clearly outlined in March’s poem, and Lippa’s closely adapted lyrics, as a more conniving, blemished, dirty soul.
Witten’s second-act blowout does not disappoint, but it’s hard to buy into his tragic soul that late into the game. Burrs is written as a far more complicated man than what Witten gives us; he plays an intense introvert well, but there’s little nuance to suggest what’s simmering beneath the surface. It is not quite as explosive as I had hoped, given the entire show’s teasing climax.
Copps is too vanilla here, despite his efforts to play Black cool. Black is a shining light in Queenie’s eyes, and the audience’s wisest choice for her. But he doesn’t feel strong enough to save her.
LauRen Alaimo – in the juicy role of coke fiend, wild child, life-of-the-party Kate – is thorough, punctuated, loud and crazy. Alaimo’s singing voice leaves much to be desired, but even when she’s off – unfortunately, too often – she still channels her character with moxie and grit, using everything she’s got and then some. I found myself watching Alaimo even when she was on the periphery. She’s meant to be the loudest, perhaps, but everyone else seems to be playing it at medium volume. When an off-stage neighbor bangs on the door for them to quiet down, I wondered if he had hearing problems.
“Who’s it gonna be, the life of the party,” blasts Kate in her big second-act topper. Looking around, I don’t think she was being rhetorical.
2.5 stars (Out of four)
Second Generation Theatre through June 28 at New Phoenix Theatre on the Park, 95 Johnson Park. Tickets are $20-$30; newphoenixtheatre.org.