Score: Michael John LaChiusa; Book: LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe. At: Bailiwick Chicago at Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000 or www.bailiwickchicago.com; $40 . Through Nov. 1
It's likely that die-hard musical-theater fans will forever be bickering and taking sides over The Wild Party. That's because in New York during the year 2000, two completely different musicals based upon Joseph Moncure March's once-banned ( and conveniently, out of copyright ) 1928 novella-length poem called The Wild Party debuted.
The Wild Party by Andrew Lippa ( Big Fish, The Addams Family ) arrived first off-Broadway in a production starring Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs and Julia K. Murney, while the version by Michael John LaChiusa ( Hello Again, See What I Wanna See ) followed on Broadway in a Public Theater production starring Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt.
Neither version became a smash hit, but both were documented with cast albums. Regional productions followed, allowing musical theater fans to form factions.
Bailiwick Chicago has entered the fray by producing what will likely be the best production of LaChiusa's The Wild Party you will ever see in the Windy City. From start to finish, the tension never lets up in director/choreographer Brenda Didier's attention-grabbing staging, which is aided immeasurably by music director Aaron Benham's propulsive mastery of LaChiusa's tricky jazz-styled score.
The Wild Party focuses on the alluring ( if aging ) vaudeville dancer Queenie ( Danni Smith ) and her abusive romantic relationship with her fellow vaudevillian, the deeply jealous blackface comic Burrs ( Matthew Keffer ). To paper over their violent fights, Burrs suggests a wild party full of bathtub gin and drugs with their myriad show-business colleagues who include the lesbian stripper ( Christina Hall ) and her new crush, Sally ( Sasha Smith ); the gay performing "brothers" of Phil and Oscar D'Armano ( Gilbert Domally and Desmond Gray ); the grand-dame actress Delores Montoya ( Danielle Brothers ); the Jewish producers Gold and Goldberg ( Jason Richards and Jason Grimm ); and former boxing champ Eddie Mackrel ( Steven Perkins ) and his relations.
You may not end up liking any of the characters by the ending, which is rushed and not particularly moving after the illegal substance-fueled orgy when Queenie suddenly finds a soulmate in Black ( Patrick Falconthe kept pretty boy of her "frenemy" Kate ( Sharriese Hamilton ) ). But, my, how fascinating the characters areespecially in the hands of this superlative cast where no one seems to be putting in a wrong foot for his or her take on these illusion-filled folks who are more comfortable performing on stage and in life rather than dealing with the depressing realities of their day-to-day existences.
So for fans of LaChiusa, Bailiwick's superlative staging will be exhibit A for superiority arguments over Lippa's take on The Wild Party. And for those without a stake in the argument, Bailiwick's The Wild Party is thrilling, adult musical theater, plain and simple.