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PEMCo’s ‘The Wild Party’ pushes the envelope

| Thursday, February 27, 2020

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

Deep in the heart of parietal country, under Our Lady’s persistent gaze, frank discussions of sex are few and far between. Even rarer: blunt artistic depictions of the amorous subject. Lecherous sins more often sit in silence — on everyone’s mind, discussed in private but almost never in performance. Not here. Not at this fine University. At least not until PEMCo’s latest project, a production of Andrew Lippa’s lusty ode to late 20’s depravity: “The Wild Party.”

Based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem of the same name, “The Wild Party” sets to music an attitude — jazz, money and mayhem mixed together in a cocktail of hedonistic self-destruction — outside the bounds of sustainability (see: 1929’s little event).

Like its subject matter, the musical leads with allure. Its steamy score seasons a big band jazz foundation with hints of pop and rock, creating an effect as spicy and unsettling as it is addictive. The audience can’t help but succumb to the tunes’ seductive smells, becoming, not unlike the shows’ central characters, subservient to dangerous patterns of indulgence.

For PEMCo, the risqué source material presents an opportunity to do something new and, hopefully, incisive.

“We wanted something darker,” executive producer Rosa Kim said. “[Our fall production] was a funny, comedic, light kind of show. We wanted a show that leaves people wondering, ‘What did we just learn from that thing we just saw?’”

“We’ve always kind of went for cheerier material like ‘Guys and Dolls,’ Golden Age musicals. But ‘Wild Party’ … it’s very real.”

In crafting “The Wild Party’s” flamboyant take on reality, PEMCo gives, quite literally, the old college try.

Their production leans heavily on the economical instincts of director Mary Hope Clark, a standout performance from leading woman Caroline Lezny (Queenie) and an airtight chamber band. (Editor’s Note: Lezny is a Scene writer for The Observer.) This talented triad forms the production’s beating heart, bringing an earnest (if, at times ungainly) supporting cast to life around them.

Clark finds ways to do a lot with a little, creatively coordinating staging, blocking and costuming to transform Washington Hall’s spare stage into a mansion’s enticing analogue. Within the space, she has characters’ self-made fictions and the company’s larger performative project play off each other. As set changes and costume swaps take place amidst the chaos, the production draws attention to itself — its contrived nature. These Brechtian maneuvers accentuate the inauthenticity of the musical’s party-going protagonists whose deceptions are anything but invisible.

Lezny’s rendition of Queenie communicates these layers of performance admirably. While her vocal work, which carefully manipulates timbre and volume to explore character, can stand alone, it’s what silent (wonderfully communicative expressions of love, fear and confusion) that makes her Queenie believably unbelievable. Tommy O’Brien, acting opposite Lezny as Queenie’s violent vaudevillian lover Burrs, has vocal chops to match. His inviting tenor, which dances along the edge of its range, does well to convey the anger underpinning Burr’s “Joker”- esque mask. But his dramatic swings leave something to be desired. With the expectation of one partially chilling scene involving some clown makeup, he comes across as more sweetly sad than damaged and angry. Maybe it’s his voice.

Nick Kloska and Grace Thomas round out the leading cast (and the musical’s central love quadrangle) as the goody-two-shoes character, Black, and the sex-crazed Kate respectively. Both scale their one-sided characters to extremes, establishing a nice comic counterpoint to the Queenie-Burr saga.

Music director Sean Ford delivers when it comes to the show’s most important and consistent facet: its music. From the drums, bass and brass up through the incredible vocal performances, Ford and the company execute complex, compelling arrangements with passion and poise. The consistency he and his cast bring to the production is enough to forgive any number of dramatic foibles.

All in all, PEMCo’s “Wild Party” succeeds in pushing the tri-campus theater community toward edgier territory. Though it never quite reaches the depraved extremes its source material calls for, the production is nonetheless interesting. In putting on “The Wild Party,” PEMCo took a risk. And, if nothing else, their courage shines on stage.

PEMCo’s “Wild Party’’ will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday on Washington Hall’s main stage.

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