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Staged poetry: Heartbreak and betrayal in the Prohibition era

The very title of Andrew Lippa’s musical “The Wild Party,” along with its Jazz Age setting, suggests a wicked, fizzy blast. But it’s closer to “The Great Gatsby” than, say, “Some Like It Hot”: It’s a tale of emotionally damaged people trying their damnedest to hurt one another.

Opening Friday at the Modern Theater Spokane, “The Wild Party” is based on a 1928 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March (another theatrical adaptation of that poem coincidentally premiered at the same time as this one), and it weaves a tangled web of heartbreak and betrayal.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful story, well told,” director Troy Nickerson said. “It’s a great evening of theater.”

The show is set on a particularly fractious evening, as various figures come and go from a party in Prohibition-era Manhattan. The apartment where the show is set belongs to a young vaudevillian named Queenie (Quinn Vaira) and her boyfriend Burrs (Daniel McKeever), a professional clown and serial womanizer. Burrs is violent and brutish, but Queenie can’t force herself to leave him, and she suggests they throw the party as a personal distraction.

“They have a volatile relationship,” Nickerson said. “(Queenie) keeps getting into relationships with the wrong men. She’s kind of broken and she makes bad choices.”

Queenie soon develops feelings for the dashing Black (Jordan Taylor), who shows up to the party with Kate (Alyssa Day), a socialite who resents Queenie and has her sights set on Burrs. As a love triangle develops into something resembling a quadrangle, everyone’s emotional loyalties are tested.

More characters arrive at the party and further complicate matters. There’s the lesbian madame Madeline (Abbey Crawford), her hooker Delores (Briane Green), the beer-swilling fighter Eddie (Nicholas Bailey) and his dim-witted girlfriend Mae (Aubree Peterson), and the incestuous D’Armano brothers (Mario Alberto and Robert C. Garcia). This show clearly isn’t afraid of shattering taboos.

“It has a very sexual energy about it,” Nickerson said. “It’s definitely adult.”

“The Wild Party” has a 19-person cast – along with the main players, there’s an ensemble that functions almost as a Greek chorus – and many of the actors are onstage for the duration of the show.

“I would assume it’s the biggest cast ever on this stage,” Nickerson said. “It’s a full-on musical with big production numbers and lighting and costumes. … It’s almost all music; there’s very little dialogue. It’s almost an opera, in a way.”

While the content of “The Wild Party” is decidedly R-rated, it’s not designed simply to shock: It’s a raw and complex character study, and it considers how the revelry and decadence of the 1920s bred as much promiscuity as pain.

“I’m super excited about it,” Nickerson said. “Artistically it’s been one of my favorite projects that I’ve had in awhile.”


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