Next week, a play called "The Real Thing" will open on Broadway. But last night, Broadway got the real thing: the first musical triumph of the new century.
It's particularly apt that Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's "The Wild Party" should fill that role. Because underneath its sizzling swing through Jazz Age New York, the show is a tough fable for our times.
This is LaChiusa's second musical of the season. But where "Marie Christine" was stern and operatic, "The Wild Party" is so down and dirty that it makes "Chicago" look like "The Sound of Music."
At first, it's easy to mistake the show for an exercise in nostalgia. It's based on a 1926 Joseph Moncure March poem that celebrates the anarchic energy of Manhattan before the Wall Street crash.
Wolfe's book follows the plot of the poem. Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, and her brutal boyfriend Burrs organize a mad bash that's soaked in blissful sin and bathtub gin. On the prowl, Queenie hooks up with a moocher, Black. In the fight that follows, Black kills Burrs.
LaChiusa's jazz/blues score, Joey McKneely's hard-driven choreography and Robin Wagner's superb sets re-create this decadent era with a wealth of period detail. But LaChiusa and Wolfe's approach to the story is as insidious as a rattlesnake's, with a sinister hiss and a vicious bite. They turn it into a New York version of "Cabaret," a parable of the way intoxicating decadence can turn into brutal violence.
The 1920s, as they present it, is a time very like our own. In a culture fueled by music and drugs, the old rules of sex and race are collapsing.
On one level, the show celebrates the fall of these barriers. LaChiusa writes jazz as if it's just been invented, and the blazing energy of his songs matches the breathless pace of Wolfe's direction. Although there are some outstanding numbers, what matters most is the way the score creates a dizzy, delirious musical world.
But even while the party rages, there is a mounting sense of threat. Behind the frantic pleasures, vicious stereotypes persist - and Wolfe tells us this by using a bold theatrical device: All the main characters are played as secondhand versions of 20th-century icons, trapped inside an inherited image.
Thus the magnificent Mandy Patinkin plays Burrs as a blackface minstrel, a down-at-the-heels Al Jolson so far up the Swanee he'll never get back. Toni Collette's Queenie is a makeshift Marilyn Monroe, all dimples and despair. Yancey Arias' Black is a bargain-basement Valentino. Tonya Pinkins as his sugar mommy Kate is Josephine Baker with all her clothes on.
And Eartha Kitt as the aging sex symbol Dolores gives a fabulous impression of another great showbiz icon - Eartha Kitt. Inevitably, this theatrical kleptomaniac steals the show repeatedly - but this, too, is part of the act.
All of this works because Wolfe manages to fuse the book and the staging into a seamless swirl of music, movement and mood. As it sweeps towards its violent climax, it gathers an irresistible force.
Full of joy and horror, pleasure and warning, "The Wild Party" shows the American musical to be very much alive - and still able to deliver a ferocious kick.
It's the Jazz Age. The '20s. Black and white musical idioms are mixing as intimately and outrageously as blacks and whites themselves. The clatter of Fitzgerald and Stein and Picasso and Langston mix in.
A narrative poem written in 1926 by Joseph Moncure March called "The Wild Party" captured a certain aspect of the time. It was the tale of an all-night drug-and alcohol-driven debauch at the apartment of vaudeville players Queenie and Burrs.
This forgotten epic, recently republished, has inspired two musicals this season. The first, by Andrew Lippa, was merely glum and sordid. The second, with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and book by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, gets some of the sexiness and wit and raw, driven desperation of the '20s.
This "Wild Party" gets the flavor of the period - the emptiness, the cheerful flinging of oneself into partying and drugs.
LaChiusa, author of "Marie Christine" and a very uneven talent, is comfortably at home here amid vaudevillians at play and at havoc. He does a good, competent job of making a lively, moving Broadway musical of a crazy scene.
Queenie, a raucous, sexy, flippant blonde vaudeville dancer, is played with irresistible charm and desperate abandon by Toni Collette, an Australian movie actress ("Muriel's Wedding" and "The Sixth Sense") in her New York stage debut.
Collette's fevered vivacity and fierce appetite for life make us like her Queenie. The woman is in a relationship with the failing, angry, doomed vaudevillian comic Burrs, incarnated with an eerie intensity by Mandy Patinkin.
Patinkin becomes at extreme moments of tension a manic, black-face performer. He's an Al Jolson from hell, a white man ill at ease with the black idiom he has appropriated. Patinkin is magnificent in his mad, frenzied appetite to thrust his bitterness on all the revelers - including us, who are forced to join in his jibes.
Other colorful celebrants abound. There's Eartha Kitt as Dolores, an ageless fount of vocal venery and bodily bravura. Kitt, still beautiful and boastful, knows that "beauty won't matter and brains won't matter" when the party ends but that "the right stuff" - being fabulous and fabulously professional - will count. She has some lurid by-play with two producers named Gold and Goldberg (Adam Grupper and Stuart Zagnit in delightful performances).
Kitt is sensational, too, as a grim-faced dispenser of sober counsel to Queenie.
There are also the uptown friends and singers Phil and Oscar who are together and torn apart and get back together; a wild, wonderful touch of Harlem provided by Nathan Lee Graham and Michael McElroy.
The party's lesbian is done superbly by Jane Summerhays, who is very funny as the lovelorn lady.
The party is brought to a riveting climax when Patinkin, in black-face, breaks in on Queenie and her new love, the dapper ladies' man Black, who is brought to life with a mix of showy, gigolo glamour and fresh unspoiledness by Yancy Arias.
With "People Like Us" the lovers Queenie and Black have a standard lament of two lost souls trapped in an urban whirlwind.
"The Wild Party," as delivered by Wolfe and LaChiusa, is an expansion of the New York of "On the Town."
It's a nervous, excited evocation of a New York nasty. But it's also - perhaps allowing for love and certainly allowing for show business - an evocation of professionalism.
Orgies are getting such a bad name these days. Those nasty pagans in the old Cecil B. DeMille movies at least got to enjoy their fleshpots before being squashed beneath the almighty heel. But from the sinister, group-grope soirees of ''Eyes Wide Shut,'' Stanley Kubrick's film about the joylessness of sex, to the blood-letting menage a trois of the current ''American Psycho,'' hard-working debauchees are being presented in ways that make Oliver Cromwell look like Mr. Happiness.
Why, even the New York theater, so often chastised for being a beat behind the mainstream cultural pulse, is doing its part to take the fun out of hedonism. Indeed, no one is achieving this end quite so thoroughly as the cast and creators of ''The Wild Party,'' which opened last night at the Virginia Theater.
This is, as you may know, the second musical of the season of this title, and it is inspired by the same original source material, Joseph Moncure March's notorious narrative poem of the Prohibition era. The first incarnation, a Manhattan Theater Club production written and composed by Andrew Lippa, set up its decadent sybarites as a bunch of writhing, mostly interchangeable neurasthenics.
This latest version, the work of Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, is big on letting its characters suffer, loudly and aggressively, in the spotlight. The suffering is embodied by talented stars like Mandy Patinkin, Toni Collette and the legendary Eartha Kitt. Lest you think of this as a drawing card, you should know, for example, that Mr. Patinkin, a febrile performer in even his calmest moments, is first seen in blackface making like Al Jolson.
If ''Wild Party I'' seemed to be a party with no personalities, ''Wild Party II'' feels like a parade of personalities in search of a missing party. Actually, the shows are equally effective at guaranteeing that a good time is had by no one. And both carry with them a heavy weight of professional disappointment.
Hopes for a transfer to Broadway for the first ''Wild Party,'' which had generated considerable excitement before its opening, came to naught. The fact that the current ''Wild Party'' is on Broadway, mounted to the tune of $5 million, is a cause for sorrowful head-shaking, especially given that the last venture on Broadway by the Joseph Papp Public Theater, where Mr. Wolfe is the artistic director, was the costly flop ''On the Town.''
It must have sounded like such a sexy proposition once upon a time. Mr. LaChiusa, the composer of ''Hello Again'' (and later ''Marie Christine''), was being heralded as one of the freshest new talents in musical songwriting. Mr. Wolfe, Mr. LaChiusa's co-writer on ''Party'' as well as its director, had proved himself a master magician of stagecraft in any number of idioms, with shows like ''Angels in America'' and ''Bring In da Noise, Bring In da Funk.''
And what promising subject matter: sex (of several varieties), murder, showbiz, drugs, booze and jazz, all set in a percolating moment in Manhattan that had been given new intellectual currency by Ann Douglas's widely praised, much discussed book about the period, ''Terrible Honesty.''
Yet what has wound up on the stage is a portrait of desperation that itself feels harshly, wantonly desperate. When Mr. Patinkin, portraying the brutish host of the party of the title, bodily drags a couple of reluctant businessmen into the action, yelling, ''Come on i-i-i-n,'' he sums up the relationship between the performers and the audience in an evening of acting as strong-arming.
Mr. Wolfe has conceived ''Party,'' set in the waning days of vaudeville, as itself a series of vaudeville turns, replete with scene-labeling signs on an easel and the actors begging for attention like low burlesque comics. The sweaty energy they expend in so doing is impressive, but a musical that instantly announces that it ain't too proud to beg is in trouble from the beginning.
The story sticks close to March's poem while shifting the dominant tone from jaded and wry dispassion to screeching rage. This is a show in which everyone is restless, dissatisfied and self-loathing and isn't shy about saying so. Even the astonishing Ms. Kitt, whose signature feline voice and stance are as vibrant as ever, walks through the evening with a Judgment Day scowl on her face, suggesting that she should perhaps be growling instead of purring.
Ms. Collette, who gives the evening's most fully realized performance, has the central role of Queenie, the plantinum-blond man trap and vaudeville dancer who lives with the violence-prone Burrs (Mr. Patinkin), a comedian. The party they give is to shake up their static, sour relationship, and it turns out to be the sort of event from which people are lucky to escape with their lives.
The imperiled guests include Ms. Kitt's Dolores, a stage diva hanging on by her nails to the remnants of a glamorous career; Kate (Tonya Pinkins), Queenie's best friend and rival; Black (Yancey Arias), Kate's boy toy, who has an eye for Queenie; and Jackie (Marc Kudisch), a self-destructive ''ambisextrous'' rich kid who has an eye for everyone, including the incestuously devoted D'Armano brothers (Nathan Lee Graham and Michael McElroy), who sing naughty, name-dropping songs about high and low society.
Now in theory this list should allow for all sorts of juicy combinations, especially when you factor in the presence of a predatory lesbian and pseudo-intellectual stripper (Jane Summerhays, doing Gypsy Rose Lee, more or less), her catatonic girlfriend (Sally Murphy) and an under-age nymphet (Brooke Sunny Moriber). Oh, yes, there's also that hunky prizefighter (Norm Lewis) and his curvaceous mistress (Leah Hocking).
Yet even singing the jauntier examples of Mr. LaChiusa's vaudeville and jazz pastiches (with Stravinsky hovering in the background, natch), they tend to be as whiny and overstimulated as a party of 2-year-olds with no videos to watch.
The barbs they shoot at one another aren't that much closer to adult sophistication. Dolores to Queenie: ''You look delectable, like a piece of puff pastry someone has taken a bite of.'' Queenie: ''Dolores, why don't you do the same and bite me?'' When Ms. Murphy's character, the butt of the evening's longest running joke, is described as postmodern, Burrs rakishly amends that it should be ''post-mortem.''
There is minimal dancing at the party, which has been negligibly choreographed by Joey McKneely, but there are lots of dark confessions for the wee small hours, ranging from standard-issue fears of soullessness to racial hatred. (There's a reason Mr. Patinkin appears in blackface, but it has nothing to do with the plot.) The boxer, needless to say, has his big moment, in which he describes that fight when he took a dive.
All this occurs before a set (by Robin Wagner) that shifts from two-dimensional vaudeville scrims to a sort of decrepit Gothic ballroom where the Addams Family might gather. The unflattering costumes, which pay special attention to underwear, are by Toni-Leslie James. There are a few flashes of nudity, and a few flashes of amusement, mostly provided by Ms. Kitt and by Adam Grupper and Stuart Zagnit as a couple of square Shubertesque producers who lose their pants (literally) at the party.
Ms. Pinkins, a warm and winning performer, is appealing in a double-edged friendship duet with Ms. Collette, though even she can do nothing to redeem a song in which she sings unhappily about how much she likes her life while sexually straddling Mr. Patinkin.
Ms. Collette, nominated for an Oscar as the single mother in ''The Sixth Sense,'' makes a most creditable Broadway debut as Queenie, showing an ability to convey savage mood swings through song and dance, and if she evokes the era of Marilyn Monroe more than that of Louise Brooks, she still looks luscious. Unfortunately there is no chemistry at all between her and Mr. Arias, who looks more like an altar boy than a gigolo.
As for Mr. Patinkin, he works like a Trojan, feverishly plying the wide array of vocal mannerisms and tics for which he is famous, but to oddly little effect. It is his character who early on articulates the evening's formula: ''Gin, skin, sin, fun.''
Mr. Patinkin stretches each of these words into two anguished syllables, while wearing the rictus of someone who has just had spikes driven into his toes. It's the perfect preface to the fu-un, fu-un, fu-un that follows.
The chief flaw of "The Wild Party," Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's dark, glittering new musical, is one it shares with the gathering it so vividly depicts --- it goes on too long. The musical has reportedly been shortened by at least a half-hour during an angst-plagued preview period, and further ruthless cuts and a sharper focus on the show's central themes might have transformed an impressive but uneven show into a stellar one. As it is, "The Wild Party" is a restlessly percolating, stylish romp through a smoky world of vices and their prices --- but one that lacks the emotional punch it could carry.
"Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still/And she danced twice a day in vaudeville" are the opening lines of the 1928 Joseph Moncure March poem that inspired the show, and Gotham theater followers should be familiar with them by now --- they're sung both here and in the season's previous musical adaptation of the poem, the Manhattan Theater Club production with book, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa.
While LaChiusa and Wolfe's "Wild Party" is superior in every respect to the previous version, it is also more similar in tone and style than that show was to the current Broadway hit "Chicago." Its framing as a vaudeville performance --- replete with onstage cards announcing acts --- is certainly justified by the underbelly-of-showbiz milieu. But the format, in which the characters spend much of their time stepping outside the story, aiming their gimlet eyes and bitter cracks straight at the audience, inevitably feels a bit borrowed from Kander & Ebb's own 1920s underbelly-of-showbiz musical.
Nonetheless, the theatrical-revue device is employed with wit and energy to introduce the show's protagonists, the tough-as-nails, sexually voracious Queenie (Toni Collette) and her tougher-than-nails boyfriend Burrs (Mandy Patinkin), who is also a vaudeville performer. They sputter and snap at each other in a winking scene that sets the stage for the evening's main event, a gin-soaked bash to which they invite all their nearest and dearest, a motley assortment of has-beens and wannabes who parade their tarnished hearts and egos before us in a vibrant, if overextended, series of introductory songs.
Most of the guests arrive at the party in pairs: the ex-boxing champ Eddie (Norm Lewis) and his girl Mae (Leah Hocking), with her jailbait tag-along sister Nadine (Brooke Sunny Moriber); the lesbian Madelaine True (Jane Summerhays) with her nearly catatonic new discovery Sally (Sally Murphy); the apparently incestuous gay brothers Oscar and Phil D'Armano (Nathan Lee Graham and Michael McElroy); the somewhat out-of-place, three-piece-suited Jewish producers Gold and Goldberg (Adam Grupper and Stuart Zagnit); and, finally, Queenie's viper-tongued best friend Kate (Tonya Pinkins) and her new man, Black (Yancey Arias). Arriving solo are Jackie (Marc Kudisch), an "ambi-sextrous" looker and literary climber, and the faded, jaded stage star Dolores, played with effortless, showstopping elan by that great silken tigress of showbiz, Eartha Kitt.
The musical's gloriously decayed good looks, and the painterly mise-en-scene of director Wolfe, are one of the most striking achievements of the Broadway season. Set designer Robin Wagner has arranged the punished-looking furnishings of Queenie and Burrs' apartment on a turntable set inside a hollowed-out, smoke-darkened ballroom. Vestiges of former grandeur cling to tattered, grimy wallpaper and peer gloomily through huge, broken windows. The haunting, delicately calibrated lightingof Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer turns the room into a ghoulish canvas for the revelers' flickering silhouettes, which leap and dance in frenzied patterns against the walls.
On this very alluring devil's playground, hearts carefully covered in tinfoil suddenly begin to break. Wolfe and LaChiusa have allowed the emotional pivot of the poem --- Queenie's infidelity --- to spread like a virus among the characters, creating a unifying theme for the show. As Patinkin's Burrs sings in a key song, "Fidelity is a virtue/Too many of you lack/Monogamy can exert you/Keeping track of what goes on/Behind your back..." The authors have also unearthed some intriguing emotional underpinnings in the characters that would pay better dividends if they were more deeply explored. Queenie and Black, who are quickly drawn to each other despite the glowering disapproval of their lovers, sing a touching, muted duet in which they label themselves "damaged goods," emotional cripples who "take lovers like pills/Just hoping to cure what we know we can't fix."
As the show rises to a tense emotional pitch midway through, sexual betrayal and its fiery fallout creates a dangerous, brooding presence that seeps inexorably past the footlights. All the various couples threaten to splinter and regroup --- the sexual abandon of this cast of outcasts is driven by a deep longing to belong. But instead of developing this intriguing emotional current and following it straight through to the story's tragic climax --- a violent confrontation between Burrs and Black --- the authors allow the show's momentum to subside. It circles and vamps for a half-hour, with a distracting near-rape subplot and various supporting characters getting unnecessary and thematically repetitive solo numbers --- there are far too many songs sung in the same bruised and cynical tone, in fact. The climax, when it finally arrives, registers limply.
LaChiusa's peppery score is firmly grounded in the music of the period in which the show is set. Brittle, brassy burlesque songs, tuneful Tin Pan Alley ditties, a torchy blues here and a samba there, they tickle the ear with pleasing, time-tested, riffs full of rumbling piano runs and scorching horn bursts. The composer's lyrics are snappy and clever, if not particularly complex; sometimes they're a little too on-the-nose, as are portions of LaChiusa and Wolfe's book.
Although some of the bitchy repartee feels microwaved, the performers generally have vivid material to work with, and they do it justice. Patinkin ably projects Burrs' energy and glinting menace, and his singing --- the sweet falsetto contrasted with a reverberant vibrato --- perfectly captures the character's dueling impulses. Pinkins is all flash and swagger as the world-weary Kate, and most of the supporting performers offer sharply etched, tabloid-vivid portraits. Unfortunately, though Collette sings with surprising stylishness, her Queenie is flat and one-dimensional; she doesn't convey the warmth that invites emotional investment. Arias' Black is something of a cypher, as well, perhaps chiefly because his role is underwritten.
Kitt is of course a major asset and the audience's darling. Her fur-lined growl and razor-edged timing turn each line of dialogue into a home run. "You can take a million lovers, but you're on your own when it ends," she sings with cool fervor at one point, nailing the lonely truth that plagues most of the guests at "The Wild Party." It's not the first or last time someone in the show makes the point, but when Kitt makes a point, it stays made.