Musical inspired by controversial poem features Roaring 1920s decadence and debauchery.
By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times
Just in time for election season, debauchery and decadence arrives in Malibu this week when Malibu Stage Company presents “The Wild Party,” opening Friday.
“It’s like sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the 1920s,” said director/producer Julia Holland. “It’s definitely for mature audiences. Sex, cocaine, bathtub gin-a decadent era right before the [1929 Stock Market] crash.”
Based on Joseph Moncure March’s controversial 1928 poem, “The Wild Party,” written by Michael John LaChiusa, features characters Queenie and Burrs, a passionate pair of vaudevillians who throw a party to rekindle their relationship. On the guest list: a prizefighter, a lesbian stripper, eccentric theater producers, and other sordid creatures of the night. Soaking-wet with Prohibition booze and mad dancing, “Wild Party” conveys the reckless times just prior to the Great Depression.
“[The poem] was very scandalous because of its very sexual content,” Holland explained. “So it was banned in Boston and in other places for a while. It kind of resurfaced again in the nineties when [‘Maus’ cartoonist] Art Spiegelman found the poem and did these wood block graphics for it.”
While readying her production with choreographer Natalie Rubenstein, Holland discussed her cast, which includes Malibu residents such as Tower of Power singer Lenny Goldsmith and Oscar Best. Krista Sutton, Casey Zeman, Charlene Closshey and Wallace Demarria are among those featured. Holland previously worked as vocal director on MSC’s “I Love You, You ‘re Perfect, Now Change!”
“This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life for sure,” Holland said, laughing. “It’s a one-act, 15-character dark comedy. Everybody’s on stage the whole time. Just keeping track of all of the elements is hard.”
A Malibu resident of 11 years with her children, daughter Brooke, 20, and son Tom, 18, Holland reached out to a wide swath of people to fill those 15 roles. “The great thing is that I brought together this great cast,” she said. “I’ve been able to pull people from my past, local community people.”
As with its director, “Wild Party” will keep its actors on their toes. “Working with Julia, she’s very talented with music and very giving with her time to help you learn the music,” Best said. “[‘Wild Party’] is not like ‘Hair’ or ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ These are very complex harmonies.”
Hot off of his lead role as Capt. Davenport in “A Soldier’s Play,” Best returns to the MSC’s stage as Eddie Mackerel, a retired former boxer.
“When I look at him, I’m playing Jack Johnson,” said Best, who performs a tear-jerker called “The Golden Boy,” which comments on the societal oppression Johnson endured as an African-American in the 1920s.
“It’s a heartbreaking song about winning the world championship, but don’t touch the white girls and use the back door,” Best said.
Transitioning from “Soldier’s Play,” which just ended its run Oct. 17, to “Wild Party,” was bittersweet for Best (“I just left a family…”). Yet unlike with Charles Fuller’s intense, military-themed Pulitzer Prize-winner, which had to be performed to the letter, “I get to get loose on this one,” Best said.
Richard Johnson, MSC’s artistic director, also has a role in “Wild Party,” alongside Goldsmith as vaudeville producers gone the Great White Way. It was Johnson’s suggestion to bring “Wild Party” to Malibu.
Back in 2000, two rival productions arrived based on March’s poem: one off-Broadway starring Taye Diggs, and the Broadway version, starring Mandy Patinkin, Toni Collette and Eartha Kitt. MSC chose the latter.
“It’s nice to have a larger cast to give out more roles and, of course, the music was through the roof and very different than anything else,” Johnson said.
“I don’t care to do ‘Oklahoma’ or ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ or ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ or [Neil Simon plays],” he added. “They’re a little too dated for me.”
Sure, such crowd-pleasers may guarantee a packed house, but he’s more interested in the road less traveled. For example, Johnson convinced Canary Islands-based playwright Peter Quilter to world-premiere one of his plays in Malibu. “A Night at the Oscars,” directed by Diane Carrol, opens in February.
“Let’s face it, the demographics of the theater are over 50,” Johnson said. “I want younger people to come. I never felt to cater to that. I want to appeal to a wide range of clientele. We are striving to make this the best damn theater in the country.”
MSC’s choices seem to be paying off. The company was recently placed on the coveted “O list” after Ovation Awards representatives came down to see “A Soldier’s Play.”
Also showing confidence in the theater company is actor and high-profile local Dick Van Dyke, who donated a $35,000 sound system. “The Wild Party” will be the first MSC production to capitalize on the new speakers and Lavalier microphones.
“We’re stepping up technically,” Johnson said. “We have a five-piece band on stage, elevated on a platform eight feet above the ground.”
Like the best material, the anachronistically set “Wild Party” echoes contemporary themes, such as an economic crash and Prohibition themes that resonate considering the marijuana proposition currently on California’s ballot.
“It has interracial sex, drugs, prohibition liquor,” Johnson said. “We take a look at what racism is about to small degree, but it’s a romp. It’s a bit on the dark side but it doesn’t play dark at all.”
Added Best, “Everyone is going to have fun.”
“The Wild Party” performs at the Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, through Dec. 5. on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. More information and tickets ($35) can be obtained by calling 310.589.1998 or online at brownpapertickets.com