Don’t miss this “Wild Party”

Just returned from “The Wild Party” and I was very impressed! This is a uniquely involving night of cabaret-flavoured theatre. Adding to the vivid experience is the Anza Club setting, which itself plays a sort of character: that of a Jazz Age speakeasy where skin, sin and bathtub gin abound.

The show, based on a controversial 1920’s poem, is a whirlwind of shifting scenes and characters, all movement, energy, and snappy, witty dialogue. The dark tale is told with a lot of cynical humour, stylized enough that we can even laugh – a little – at the homicidal ruminations of a crazed, jealous lover.

The stage is constantly awash in movement, but it’s all tightly focused and works in tandem with some varied lighting and staging effects so that it never becomes monotonous. The inevitable violence near the show’s end is staged with the protagonist creeping toward the stage, thrown into silhouette against the target(s) looming before him – some great visual drama to match that on stage.

Musically, the show is constantly moving from sung-through dialogue, to melody, to spoken word, to rhyming couplets, to full-on chorus numbers. The style is angular yet jazzy; always shifting to a fresh musical phrase, an oblique chord or unexpected key or tempo change. While there is not a lot to hum as you leave the show, while it’s happening there is always something to engage the ear.

Mat Baker is the tragicomic Burrs, married to party-girl Queenie – both fast-living thrill seekers tinged with a barely-concealed edge of desperation and despair. As Burrs, Mat Baker goes way out there with a characterization I found mesmerizing even as I marvelled at how over-the-top it was. He’s clearly going for the operatic end of the scale here, frantic energy and side-of-his-mouth wiseacre delivery. With his shaggy hair and wild-eyed demeanour, he was a cross between a Tex Avery cartoon gangster and Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Cailin Stadnyk brings a vulnerable edge of realism to a character that as written is potentially a fickle, bitchy vixen as over-the-top as her husband. Instead she commands the stage with sensuality and a desperate charm.

The rest of the cast each brings something memorable to their role, overcoming the challenge of keeping a coherent presence in this multi-character, multi-story tale. Particular standouts included Michael Antonakos as Mr. Black, who embodied the smoldering suavity of his character; and Karin Konoval as an older “Broadway baby” using her feminine wiles to grab another shot at the limelight. (She delivered a powerful version of “When It Ends”, the one number I knew as I’d sang it inhttp://www.onceupon.org/broadway/#mce_temp_url#a few years back!) And I roared at the antics of Peter New and Peter Hall as Gold and Goldberg, aspiring Broadway producers debating how much Jewishness they should reveal. (As a “member of the tribe” I must admit to some extra delight in the progress of these two shlemiels.)

Though some have commented on the poor sightlines, I actually found the club-like environment worked well with the show and the staging – wherever you looked, something was happening, and most of the performances were at least mostly visible. And the crowd around me just added to the sense of blurred lines between show and audience – I truly did feel like I was AT the titular “wild party”.

More troubling were the downstairs musical rumblings vibrating up from the floor, that threatened to shatter the carefully-constructed atmosphere in the performance space above. This was especially problematic during the second half of the one-act, two-hour show, which contains plenty of quiet moments and pregnant pauses – many of which were robbed of their impact by the throbbing from below. I suspect there’s nothing that can be done about this, and the risk of amplified music from the basement disturbing the show was the price they had to pay for the use of this otherwise-great venue, but it was still unfortunate.

All in all, I found this to be more than a memorable evening of theatre, it was a 360-degree experience. Get there a little early and you can join cast members for an onstage lesson in the “Black bottom dance”; and after the show ended, it was only moments before a burlesque performance took the stage. A wild party indeed… attend it while you can!

“The Wild Party” runs through May 28. Tickets and info can be found at the Pint Size Tall Productions website.

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