(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
When Joseph Moncure March first published his long narrative poem The Wild Party in 1928, it was famously banned in Boston for the excesses of its content, dealing with issues of sex, violence, and homosexuality.
The University of Texas’ Department of Theatre and Dance has taken up the Broadway adaptation of The Wild Party (with music and lyrics by Michael John Lachiusa, and book by Lachiusa and George C. Wolfe), which is playing through Dec. 5 in the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre.
The content of The Wild Party is risqué even today, and so one might wonder if a college production would shy away from some elements of the play. However, director Cara Phipps has allowed these talented students to play out even the most controversial moments.
Early on in the show, Christopher Montalvo – as vaudevillian Burrs – leaps on stage in blackface, performing snippets of a minstrel act. Montalvo and Phipps offset the potential offensiveness of this moment with a thoughtful note regarding the history and use of blackface, written by the actor, posted outside of the theater.
In addition to being a thoughtful and reflective student, Montalvo is also a dynamic performer; Burrs is constantly full of desperate menace and manic charm even as his life crumbles around him during the titular wild party.
The heart of The Wild Party, however, is Queenie, played with the perfect amount of energy, obliviousness, sensuality, and vulnerability by Emma Center. Burrs’ partner on the stage and in bed, Queenie stands in as an exemplar of the excesses of the Jazz Age when her games and manipulations brings down not just her own life, but those of her supposed friends, as well.
Make no mistake, The Wild Party is a sinister musical, full of darkness and malevolence hiding just beneath a thin veneer of gaiety. The large cast is extremely talented, but also very young. As such, some of the more intense, sexually charged moments (and there are many) can become off-putting to watch in a way not necessarily intended by the text or the director. However, that is part of the nature of student productions, and not to be held against the actors who truly commit one hundred percent to The Wild Party’s decadent, destitute world.
UT’s Department of Theatre and Dance’s production of The Wild Party is a very different kind of musical. It is uniquely staged, gorgeously lit and designed, exquisitely directed (despite having fifteen people on stage and being played in the round, the action and focus is always easy to follow), and powerfully acted.
What its young cast may lack in maturity, the text has in spades, and it may be one of the darkest musicals to ever come out of Broadway. However, the very youth of the actors also lends this production much of its power and potency, as the relentless, nonstop energy is never dropped for a single second.
If you can get beyond seeing young performers in such a provocative text, The Wild Party is a dark, thrilling experience that is not to be missed.
“The Wild Party” continues through Dec. 5 Brockett Theatre, Winship Building texasperformingarts.org