U-M production updates the Roaring Twenties-set musical "The Wild Party" for the Cell Phone Age


UMSTMD's production of The Wild Party

Director and University of Michigan grad Andrew Lippa sets The Wild Party in modern-day Manhattan. Photo courtesy UMSTMD.

Joseph Moncore March’s 1928 book-length poem The Wild Party was a scandal at the time. March portrayed in rhythmic language the shifting landscape of sexual relations and raw desires in the Roaring ’20s as captured in a Hollywood party run amok. The book was banned in Boston and beyond.

The University of Michigan Department of Musical Theatre production of Andrew Lippa’s sung-through musical adaptation of March’s book is reset to portray a group of overprivileged Upper Eastside Manhattan teenagers. 

Lippa is a 1987 University of Michigan grad who has had a very successful career as a composer and lyricist. He wrote the music and lyrics for Big Fish, The Addams Family, and three songs for You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown among others. The Wild Party premiered off-Broadway and won the Outer Critics Circle Award for best Off-Broadway musical and Lippa won the Drama Desk Award for best music. 

The student cast brings high octane energy to the singing and dancing. The emotions run high in what is basically a complex love (or is it lust) triangle. 

Guest director and choreographer MiMi Scardulla writes in her program note that the poem The Wild Party “is not a cautionary tale of the 1920s, but a tale to show you the truth of the world around you. A tale that not everything around is as it seems.”

Lippa’s musical adaptation was set in the 1920s, but Scardulla decided to reset it to the world of rich young high schoolers acting out with alcohol and drugs fueling their raging hormones and their cell phones always on the ready to record their “wild” escapades. Perhaps some of Lippa’s music also suggests more current times than the jazz of the 1920s as well. But the shift seems awkward at best. The lyrics don’t fit a high school crowd even if the elevated emotions do. The party trimmings might suggest that Queenie had the Roaring '20s in mind as a party theme but it doesn’t seem to fit the varied dress of the guests. The over use of flashing cell phones is distracting.

But the talented cast under Scardulla’s direction brings life to the party.

Maya Sistruck plays Queenie, the center of any room she’s in. She’s engaged in a troubling relationship with Burrs, an abusive and overly possessive hot head. Queenie fears him but is also attracted to those rough edges and the wild side of life. Sistruck brings a commanding figure and a large rich voice to the troubled Queenie. The part demands that she sing too many big emotional songs. But she holds the stage when she performs and clearly understands the complexity of Queenie’s sexual yearnings. It is Queenie’s idea to hold a wild party to test the limits of her feelings for Burrs.

Andrew Cekala plays Burrs, an angry young man with brusk manners and a roving eye. He’s also obsessed with Queenie. Cekala also has several songs at high pitched emotions but is allowed a lead in the gospel-inspired “Let Me Drown,” which he sings and dances excellently. Cekala’s performance of a fast, angry rant in the show’s dramatic climax is especially strong.

Macy McKown plays Kate, Queenie’s friend with a yen for Burrs. McKown has several standout songs that suggest Kate’s insecurity and McKown plays the increasingly more intoxicated Kate with just the right mix of sadness and desperation. It’s Kate who stirs things up by bringing Mr. Black to the party.

Alexander Phillip Gonzalez Byrd plays the naive outsider from Chicago who immediately becomes infatuated with Queenie and whose gentle manners and professions of love provide contrast to the violent Burrs. Byrd has that calm confidence and charm. He also has some high-pitched emotional songs but does best in the quiet moments.

Other standouts are Mikako Martin as Madelaine True who sings “An Old Fashioned Love Story,” a funny-sad song about a lesbian’s search for love, and Ethan Hardy Benson as Eddie and Ella Olesen as Mae who sing “Two of a Kind,” which suggests a nod to vaudeville.

The Wild Party is as much about dance as it is about song. The dances are sometimes quite effective in portraying the shifting emotions. At other times they seem disconnected. 

The cast keeps the party going with excellent singing and dancing to a solid on-stage band under the direction of Jason DeBord.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"The Wild Party" continues at 8 pm on Oct. 9, 14, 15 and 16 and at 2 pm on Oct. 10 and 17 at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the main campus of the University of Michigan. Call 734-764-2538 or visit smtd.umich.edu for tickets and more information.