In director Daniel Henning's third West Coast unveiling of a musical from trailblazing composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa (following Hello Again and First Lady Suite), he brings us a hair-raisingly edgy tuner bursting with musical brilliance, inspired performances, and sizzling dramatic fireworks. This 2000 Broadway musical is LaChiusa's finest work to date and serves as a watershed achievement for Henning's Blank Theatre Company.
The material has an intriguing history. In 1921 silent-film comic Fatty Arbuckle threw an all-night Hollywood soiree, attended by a colorful cross-section of showbiz eccentrics, has-beens, and opportunists. It resulted in tragedy, scandal, and an abrupt end to Arbuckle's career. It's commonly believed that Joseph Moncure March's famous 1926 narrative poem The Wild Party--on which this musical is based—was inspired by that fateful night of booze, dope, debauchery, and death. In collaboration with co-librettist George C. Wolfe, LaChiusa created a thrillingly audacious musical fable that juxtaposes the carefree revelry of the Jazz Age in Manhattan against the milieu's mythical dark underbelly, awash with emotional and physical violence, depravity, and desperation.
The scintillating score is a dazzling parade of ironic vaudevillian numbers, wonderful torch songs, and Broadway-style ditties, capped off with a Duke Ellington flourish. As minimal dialogue is used, the songs tell the story, introducing the motley characters and their sundry passions and neuroses. As the shimmering star of this ensemble, Valarie Pettiford is a powerhouse. Playing the hedonistic chorine Queenie, she sings, dances, and acts up a storm. A bundle of contradictions, she's sexy yet childlike, predatory yet victimized, thick-skinned yet vulnerable, conniving yet pitiable. Eric Anderson shines in his tour-de-force characterization as her psychotically abusive boyfriend, Burrs. From his mesmerizing blackface burlesque routines to his climactic breakdown, he infuses this role with startling humor and a crackling sense of danger. As Queenie's best friend and fiercest rival, Jane Lanier (who also contributes smashing choreography) is divine; her bitchy catfights with Pettiford are the funniest since those "Bosom Buddies" Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur bared their claws in Mame. Nathan Lee Graham and Daren A. Herbert parlay the lilting duets of two gleeful crooners, the Brothers D'Armano, into blissful showstoppers.
Likewise sublime are Sam Zeller's bisexual leech, Kirsten Benton Chandler's lesbian party girl, Sally Kellerman's washed-up Latina star, James Black's volatile ex-boxer, Julie Dixon Jackson's ditzy showgirl, Michael Kostroff and Peter Van Norden's canny producing team, dulcet-voiced Innis Casey's sexy gigolo, Daisy Eagan's catatonic waif, and Sasha Wexler's naive young virgin. The design elements are stylish and artful: Aaron Francis' set, Dana Peterson's costumes, and Judi Lewin's wigs and makeup. Music director David O leads a magnificent five-man combo.
Some might quibble about the occasional unheard lyric or line or the overlong valley of despair that LaChiusa takes us through at the climax. Yet it's hard to remember so much high-powered talent--onstage and behind-the-scenes--assembled for a local small-scale musical. Henning's risk-taking endeavor is a glittering, breathtaking triumph.