UT Theatre & Dance's The Wild Party

In this Michael John LaChiusa & George C. Wolfe musical, gin, sin, and skin collide in a debaucherous 1920s requiem to the ego

Desperate for a good time: Christopher Montalvo's Burrs (l) and Emma Center's Queenie (Photo by Lawrence Peart)

Take one part bathtub gin. Add equal parts has-beens and wannabes. Throw in a love triangle and a few lines of coke. Add a dash of vaudeville. Now shake it up with a lively score, strain, and serve in a stunning set. Now have another round, because the party's just getting started at UT.

Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe based their musical The Wild Party on Joseph Moncure March's book-length poem of the same name, a notorious work that was widely banned when published in 1928 and, according to literary lore, made William S. Burroughs want to become a writer. Its controversial tale revolves around the unhappy lovers Queenie and Burrs, both vaudeville performers, who have decided to escape their misery by throwing the party to end all parties. What follows is a parade of guests (with varying levels of desperation and morality) that culminates in the debauchery that characterized the underbelly of Manhattan in the Roaring Twenties. Energies are high, egos are raging, and clothing is skimpy. Welcome to The Wild Party.

Weighty subjects dominate the story, and its excess of violence, language, extreme sexual content, and substance abuse would likely earn it an NC-17 rating in the cinema. However, the undergraduate actors of this UT Department of Theatre & Dance production, led by MFA director Cara Phipps, handles the material with maturity beyond their young years. Themes of homosexuality, racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, rape, and abuse all make appearances, but play second fiddle to the love triangle at the heart of the play and the characters' desperate search for satisfaction through hedonistic vices. The production values are high: Bruno-Pierre Houle's beautifully detailed in-the-round set allows the audience to feel as if they are guests at the party, and exquisite period costumes from E.L. Hohn reiterate society's obsession with the razzle-dazzle. This one is a real looker, friends.

The Wild Party's presentational elements work to support the character's façades and reiterate the superficial nature of show business. In her director's note, Phipps states: "We all have a mask to wear ... what happens when that mask comes down?" Well, if a mask coming down happens to coincide with the breakout of the bathtub gin, shit starts to get real. Their lack of inhibitions fueled by the hooch, the characters descend into an abyss of hedonistic escapism, each searching for or running from who they really are.

Leads Emma Center and Christopher Montalvo as Queenie and Burrs, respectively, deliver the goods with nuanced desperation and vivacious energy, and the supporting cast is especially strong (Maddrey Blackwood's charismatic stripper and Nyles Washington's velvet voice leave lasting impressions). The cast and full band handle the score with artful precision, however the microphones and sound mixing seem to be unfortunate obstacles in the vast space of the Oscar G. Brockett Theatre. Too frequently, the disembodied voices of the actors go unheard, and much of the audience pays the price by missing valuable exposition and what one can only assume to be some entertaining punch lines. When the sound does deliver, the audience is rewarded with pops of poetry in both dialogue and lyrics – the delightful rhythm and couplets making it easy to understand how March's audacious poem was destined for the stage. Ultimately, The Wild Party affirms that no party lasts forever, but this one is guaranteed to go out with a bang.

The Wild Party

Oscar G. Brockett Theatre, 300 E. 23rd, UT campus, 512/477-6060
Through Dec. 5
Running time: 1 hr., 50 min.

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UT Department of Theatre & Dance, Michael John LaChiusa, George C. Wolfe, Joseph Moncure March, Cara Phipps, Emma Center, Christopher Montalvo, Maddrey Blackwood, Nyles Washington, Bruno Pierre Houle, E.L. Hohn

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