Skip to main content

Cara Ricketts and the Company.Racheal McCaig

To quote an ironic Cole Porter, "What a swell party this is!" That is, if your idea of swell is a shindig fuelled by cocaine and bathtub gin, driven by hot jazz, saturated in sex and culminating in death. Such is The Wild Party, Michael John LaChiusa's musical excursion into the most sordid excesses of the Jazz Age, receiving its belated Toronto premiere from Acting Up Stage and Obsidian Theatre.

We know that when those two companies join forces, it can be dynamite. Witness their memorable co-production of the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical Caroline, or Change three seasons ago. The Wild Party, in contrast, is both more musically challenging and less emotionally involving. But director Robert McQueen has given it an exuberant staging packed with knock-'em-dead performances and permeated by a heady atmosphere of sybaritic sleaziness that practically oozes from the brick walls of the Berkeley Street Theatre.

LaChiusa's musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2000, is based on an infamous 1920s narrative poem by New Yorker editor (and later, Hollywood screenwriter) Joseph Moncure March. A sort of low-life Great Gatsby, it tells the tale of a party thrown by a couple of bored Manhattan vaudevillians, the dancer Queenie (Cara Ricketts) and her lover, the minstrel showman Burrs (Daren A. Herbert). Their guests are an array of seedy showbiz types boasting every conceivable sexual orientation and preference. As they all get drunk and high, their dancing and flirting give way to jealous quarrels and partner-swapping, climaxing in a fatal shooting.

Along the way, LaChiusa and co-librettist George C. Wolfe touch on the ideas of self-invention and disguise, and highlight both the era's growing African-American cultural influence as well as its continued racial divide. But it often feels as though these themes have been pasted onto the story like labels, in order to make it something more significant than just a gloriously lewd portrait of Roaring Twenties depravity.

The racial angle, however, gains more substance in this production, where the two lead roles – played on Broadway by Toni Collette and Mandy Patinkin – have been recast with black actors. Now, when Ricketts's blond-haired Queenie talks about wearing a "white mask," it resonates much more deeply. And when Herbert's Burrs appears in blackface, doing an embarrassing Al Jolson routine, it suggests a self-debasement that helps explain his troubled nature.

McQueen, who also directed Caroline, is once again blessed with a terrific ensemble. The show's 15 actor-singers have all made sure that their characters, even if two-dimensional – as most of them are – still leave a striking impression. There's much to savour here, from Susan Gilmour's Theda Bara-meets-Tallulah Bankhead turn as a faded vamp, to Sterling Jarvis as a frustrated ex-prizefighter, who starts out amiably throwing punches and winds up wallowing in self-pity. Then there's brassy Lisa Horner as an aging-but-defiant lesbian stripper and Eden Richmond, wide-eyed and wonderfully weird, as her "postmodern" girlfriend. The riveting J. Cameron Barnett and David Lopez, meanwhile, bring an irresistible Cotton Club vibe to their song-and-dance work as an incestuous brother act.

Bob Foster and his onstage band serve up a sizzling rendition of LaChiusa's syncopated score, which takes its cue from the poem's rhyming couplets. Although the lyrics only aspire to Cole Porter-style wit, there is a lovely Song of India pastiche called Tabu, sung hauntingly by Lopez, and a conventional but effective ballad, People Like Us, performed with beautiful understatement by Ricketts and a charmingly louche Dan Chameroy as Queenie's new love.

Visually the show is a treat, with febrile choreography from Stephanie Graham, fabulous costumes by Alex Amini and a sprawling set by Michael Gianfrancesco that artfully melds Burr and Queenie's tawdry apartment with a vaudeville stage. Attending this Wild Party is like spending a fascinating two hours staring into a cage full of vintage party animals – even if in the end you come away feeling unmoved.

Interact with The Globe