It’s a safe and valid declaration to say that, for the money and the venue, Renegade Theater Company, for the last couple of years, has clearly edged its way into producing and executing some of the best musical theatre in town, when it comes to resources and talent. With provocative season selections that appeal to a trending younger audience and casting that nearly always takes into account the performers’ ability to bring it and sling it on stage, there are very few times when one has to wonder if Renegade will be able to “pull off” the next show on their marquee.
With very few exceptions, Renegade continues this trend with its latest production, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, directed by Jenna Kase. A winner of the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music in 2000, The Wild Party, with its formulaic, nearly unimaginative plot of a typical romantic triangle in need of a party, relies on its costuming, music, and choreography to lift itself up out of the ordinary on stage. Set in any era besides the raucous 1920s and the demand for more in the way of character development would be an absolute necessity. Thankfully, the music, the clothes, and the sexual liberation culture of the era provides the gloss.
Queenie (Abbey Hegerfeld) and Burrs (Evan Kelly) are vaudeville performers in a relationship that is quite obviously mutually on the rocks. Burrs is an abusive but needy clown and Queenie a scheming, codependent showgirl. Queenie decides that throwing a wild party would be a great way to humiliate her volatile lover. Throw in some booze and an eclectic, sexually charged guest list and, well, things are bound to get interesting.
The show, is, quite simply, frenetic and relentless, as it should be. The opening number, hooking the audience with a snarling horn, sets up the action on stage. The choreography, throughout, also by director Jenna Kase, is precise when it needs to be and casual when necessary. All the actors occupy the stage space with great confidence and that goes a long way to creating the kind of mood required in the setting of the story especially when the set design is remarkably sparse for a party set and fifteen actors have to be accommodated for dancing. In this show, the vivid period costuming, sharp choreography, and band are more setting than the set pieces themselves.
As with all community theatre musicals, the amateur vocals make or break a show’s momentum and presentation. Renegade’s selections for musicals and the actors they have chosen heretofore have been more than a decent match of material and talent unlike some other shows in the area where the distance between the two is painfully evident.
There are three great anchor vocalists for this production. Evan Kelly as Burrs demonstrates a considerable and formidable vocal acumen, especially for this repertoire and character. Burrs’ bombastic temperament, jealous rages, and underlying vulnerability are played out on stage spectacularly through the music, especially in “Poor Child” where Queenie, Kate, and Black join together in a lament over Queenie’s abusive predicament from each perspective. In the closing scenes of the first act, Kelly lets his voice soar and hum in “What Is It About Her” in an emotionally raw performance where the character tries to come to terms with his love and hate for Queenie as the party hits its full deceitful and thickening churn. At the end of the second act, Kelly’s maddeningly wicked delivery of “Make Me Happy” spellbinds as he confronts Queenie and her lover, Black.
Gracie Anderson, as Kate, the semi-reformed lady of the night, best friend of Queenie, and ardent pursuer of Burrs, is the second of the show’s vocal heavy hitters. There isn’t a moment when she’s on stage and not putting out a full throated performance. She arrives at the party and, quite suddenly, is the party, showing up with more booze and a belting rendition of “Look at me Now.” In addition to her outstanding vocals, Anderson provides great comedy, timing, and verve to her onstage performance of Kate and in her complicated relationships with Queenie and Burrs.
At the party, we’re introduced to the rest of the ensemble cast, chosen by Queenie and Burr for their amusements and for how much damage they can bring to the evening. Cory Anderson is Stan, a movie producer; Amber Burns, the underage Nadine, pursued by Burrs and also by Madelaine True (Carolyn LePine); the effete Oscar and Phil played by Tom Benson and Bryan Burns, respectively, prize fighter Eddie (Myles Heistad) and his cheeky wife Mae (Agnieszka Osarzst); Dolores (Jessica Ilaug) and Jackie (Katie Workman). Kate’s guest, Mr. Black (Kaio Kealohapauole) becomes the third part of the love triangle when he spots Queenie across the room.
The party is punctuated with the show’s varying styles of musical numbers, some jazzy, some with a gospel flavor, and some with a decidedly pop feel. The ensemble cast is a great asset to the production. Even in moments when many of the actors on stage are not part of the immediate action, they remain in character with “talk” and other stage business that brings a believability to the entirety of the show’s presentation. Myles Heistad and Agnieszka Osarzst, as husband and wife, also get the chance to deliver a well-executed and delightfully funny number, “Two of a Kind” in the first act.
Carolyn LePine, as the lascivious lesbian, Madelaine True, turns in a show-stopping performance with a finely acted and superbly sung “An Old-Fashioned Love Song” as the third vocal anchor of the show. With a playful and hinting dirtiness, LePine seems to ooze her solo’s lyrics, ending up with the night’s larger share of cheers and applause at the end of her performance.
It’s during “The Juggernaut” that we get to see Queenie and Black engage for the first time. It’s also when we see, along with Gracie Anderson and Evan Kelly’s simultaneous vocalizations, the weaknesses in Kealohapauole’s performance, both in his acting and his vocals. Unable to push much past the live accompaniment, Kealohapauole struggles on stage to create enough of a charismatic and compelling character for one to imagine him as a competing interest for a woman of Queenie’s personality and sexuality. At times appearing timid and unsure of his place, one keeps waiting for a hint of sexual chemistry or magnetism to set the role apart as a credible alternative to Kelly’s larger than life interpretation of Burrs on stage, but it doesn’t come. Vocally, chances to shine and push his character, including “I’ll Be Here”, “Listen to Me”, and “Make Me Happy” are attempted but not quite realized.
Abbey Hegerfeld’s Queenie does a passable to respectable job vocally, and is able to hold her own, acting-wise, against some of the city’s finer musical theatre actors accompanying her on stage. Her tinge of vulnerability is perhaps the most effective part of her performance as the wronged, abused, but slightly masochistic showgirl. Best performance of the evening was the tortured lament “Maybe I LIke It This Way.”
Technically, the show is well-constructed. The set design, as mentioned before, is sparse, but necessarily so, for the venue to accommodate the numerous dance numbers with, as usual, interesting and visually compelling choreography by both Kase and assisted by Amber Burns. The lighting design, by Kelly Lasley, is simple, subtle, and mood-creating. The live band is a great asset to the performance, if at times, a bit bright for understanding all the lyrics being sung by some of the cast. The show’s costuming, by Sasha Howell, is period appropriate and well-suited to each actor from flapper-like confections, to the stylish and tailored look of the men’s dinner jackets, harkening back to a time when people really dressed well. I found it interesting that the actors would be wearing mics in such an intimate venue, but with the live band’s expert treatment of the sometimes brassy and raucous musical selections, the need for them with some of the cast is quite clear.
The “party” atmosphere and setting of the production’s focus is ripe for intrigue and deception, even though Lippa’s story is, at best, pedestrian in its construction. Despite this drawback, the show’s company, almost entirely, gives a strong and unabashed presentation, drawing cheers and applause from the sold-out audience. It is much appreciated when shows like The Wild Party, not one of the better known musicals of the last ten years, can find a place on a stage in Duluth with a sold out house.
THE WILD PARTY. Book and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa. Directed by Jenna Kase for Renegade Comedy Theater. WITH Cory Anderson, Gracie Anderson, Tom Benson, Amber Burns, Bryan Burns, Scott Hebert, Abbey Hegerfeld, Myles Heistad, Jessica Ilaug, Kaio Kealohapauole, Evan Kelly, Carolyn LePine, Kyle McMillan, Agnieszka Osarzst, and Katie Workman. The show runs Thursdays through Saturdays through 20 August at Teatro Zuccone, 222 East Superior Street, Duluth. Curtain time is 8 p.m. This review, by Dennis Kempton, is based on the Saturday, 6 August performance.