A showbiz couple invite a bunch of their industry friends over to their Manhattan apartment, with copious amounts of illegal drugs and alcohol on offer, and before it’s all over somebody’s dead. Based on this synopsis, it’s easy to imagine a play written any time in the past few decades. And while the show Wild Party, which is opening at Woolfe Street Playhouse on Nov. 20, first opened Off-Broadway in 2000, the original source material predates that award-winning run by the better part of a century. (The original production won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.)
Based on a Joseph Moncure March poem first published in 1928 and quickly banned across the country for being too racy, the show is one Village Repertory Company’s Keely Enright was eager to bring to a Charleston audience. Adaptations of the poem have had a long and complicated history, including a widely-panned Merchant/Ivory film and a competing Broadway adaptation that also premiered in 2000. But it was the strength of the language, themes, and music that drew Enright to the play, and persuaded her to include it in the current season’s program.
Enright’s excitement is obvious and unqualified. “It feels very modern,” she says, citing not only the content and subject matter, but also the unflinching way characters are presented. While the hosts of the party are employed in areas of entertainment (vaudeville clown and showgirl) that might seem archaic to a modern audience, the feelings and conflicts are as relevant now as they were when the poem was written.
“[It’s] very accessible to a modern audience,” Enright says. “It’s the least-romanticized show I’ve seen about the period,” referencing the matter-of-fact presentation of not just the drugs and the booze, but also homosexuality, interracial liaisons, and the toll a bohemian attitude can take on the cultural outsiders who adopt it.
Enright says one non-negotiable for the production from the outset was to assemble a strong cast of actors. She’s worked with all the leads in the past, and is confident that others will be as impressed as she was with what they bring to their roles. “It’s an amazingly talented cast,” she says, noting that she didn’t have to compromise her expectations for either acting or singing with any of the roles. While Enright understands the appeal of musicals, for her to direct one, she says, “It’s got to either be ridiculously funny or speak to me about something more.” She felt that Wild Party fit the bill. “The audience will definitely come away thinking more than just, ‘Oh, what a cute musical.’”
Lead Emily Wilhoit (Queenie) echoes many of the director’s thoughts on the show’s quality and depth. While there are “incredible singers and songs,” Wilhoit says, “there’s real acting underneath.” She notes the darkness beneath the singing and revelry. “They’re really intense, deep characters,” she says. “Queenie has a kind of YOLO attitude, but with better clothes. And fewer clothes, by the end of the show.”
If you’re planning to attend Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party, Enright suggests showing up early, as High Wire Distillery will be serving complimentary cocktail tastings beginning at 7 p.m. And continuing the Roaring Twenties theme, Prohibition will be offering drink specials to audience members after the show.