Young gems, hidden in a rough story
UWM's Peck School of the Arts puts on a performance with a high-energy ensemble and a hard-to-swallow plot line.
On that strange spectrum between college and professional theater, I was hoping the UWM Peck School production of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, a ’20s set musical about a vaudeville couple whose relationship is on a downward spiral, would land somewhere closer to the latter end. Instead, there was a wild range of talent and entertainment value, with a few gems hidden within.
The opening number went to Queenie (Kelly Cline), clearly our sexy vaudeville heroine. Cline looked stunning in her roaring twenties get-up, but her initial performance didn’t match the confident outfit. Instead her voice meekly peeped through the sound system for a good while until she found her volume later in the show. Throughout the musical, she would slide between slightly off-key (“Out of the Blue”) and booming diva (“Who Is This Man”).
Queenie’s game is to throw a raging party for her live-in boyfriend, Burrs (Kyle Sternad). The first few numbers set the scene: Queenie and Burrs halted their restless single lives when they found each other, and for a while their relationship was hot and heavy and wonderful. Three years later: Burrs is calling Queenie a “lazy slut,” hitting her with an alarming frequency and forcing intimacy. Queenie is (obviously) spiteful, and so hopes to…embarrass him at this party by getting him super wasted? This was an important plot point that I maybe just missed; suffice it to say the party was full of scheming and resentment.
The fun numbers “What a Party” and “Raise the Roof,” both using the full force of the talented ensemble, were well done and peppy. Here entered Kate (Sally Staats), singing a stunning “Look at Me Now.” Kate is the edgy, brunette party girl to juxtapose Queenie’s blonde, virgin-esque persona. She brings a man, Black (Cleary Breunig), who’s instantly drawn to Queenie as Kate schemes to snatch up Burrs. God only knows why Kate would want him — Burrs spends the entire party as an aggressive, insulting horror.
A break from the storyline is offered by Madelaine (Sammy Goodrich), singing “An Old-Fashioned Love Story.” The catch is that Madelaine is a lesbian, hungrily seeking a hook-up. The song uses clichés and expletives to rile up the audience, which felt a little cheap.
The musical’s choreography was a little jerky as well. Choreographer Darci Brown Wutz’s blocking and the script itself require a strong physicality from the cast (the women are often caressed and all-but-felt up by the men), but a “my grandparents are watching” tentativeness overshadowed the play.
There were two real rays of sunshine—“Two of a Kind” in the first act and “Let Me Drown” during the second. “Two of a Kind” featured Eddie (Chris MacGregor) and Mae (Ashley Purpora), a couple at the party just singing about how much they like each other. It was sweet, refreshing, and downright adorable.
“Let Me Drown” was a triumph for the ensemble altogether. The song belongs to Burrs, whose anger at this point has disintegrated into self-destruction. He corrals the help of his party-goers (deep into the bottle already) for bottomless drinking. The song relies simply on voices and clapping at times, making the drop-in from the band all the more high-energy.
With all that boozing, the party obviously derails into one very serious situation, which I won’t spoil. Although the cast was at times wonderful, I was happy to see the lights go down on the scene.
The Wild Party shows again at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Sat. Feb. 9, and at 2 p.m. Sun. Feb. 10 at the Helen Bader Concert Hall at UWM. Tickets are $17 general admission with several discounts available. Purchase online or call the box office at (414) 229-4308.