A steamy musical number turns into a group grope in the second act of Onstage Atlanta’s red hot production of The Wild Party. The libidinous ensemble pushes a bed center stage; shirtless guys and women in slinky negligees drape themselves over the leads and most of the furniture; and the rhythmic music and motions build to a climax in all senses of the word. When it ends, audience members emit audible gasps, as if they’re ready for either a cigarette or a cold shower.
It’s funny that a musical with so much casual sex isn’t exactly easy. Onstage Atlanta has found a niche in tackling challenging modern musicals that have some built-in difficulties, but also come well-endowed with entertainment value. The Wild Party has a quirky history, being one of two musicals of the same name, both of which debuted in 2000 and were based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 mock-epic poem about love and violence among Prohibition-era bohemians. Onstage’s Barbara Cole Uterhardt directs Andrew Lippa's Off-Broadway version, as opposed to the higher-profile rendition (which featured Toni Collette and Mandy Patinkin).
The Wild Party is the squalid tale of a doomed love affair between vaudeville clown Burrs (Geoff “Googie” Uterhardt) and statuesque showgirl Queenie (Mary Nye Bennett in a star-making performance). After three years together, their passions have cooled but Burrs’ violent temper has not, so Queenie schemes to break up with him at the titular soiree. Unbeknownst to Queenie, her rival femme fatale, Kate (Marcie Millard), has designs on Burrs, and brings the upstanding Mr. Black (Timmonte Hood) to the party with the hopes of driving a wedge between the couple.
The Wild Party features virtually no likeable characters and lacks the ironic, darkly comic distance of the similarly sexy and cynical Chicago. Lippa’s version includes some dialogue but is mostly sung through, like an opera that looks like a vintage pulp novel or film noir poster come to life. Choreographed by Anthony Owen, the actors often move in deliberately mechanical ways, like puppets or mannequins, as if they’re all slaves to their desires.
Once The Wild Party heats up, it reaches scorching temperatures, particularly in such rousing (not to say arousing) numbers as the Biblical-themed “A Wild, Wild Party” and the ode to alcohol “Let Me Drown.” Of the four leads, Bennett, Uterhardt and Millard all seize their show-stopping moments, but Hood doesn’t have the musical presence of the rest, suggesting that the other three could eat him for breakfast, assuming they’re not too hungover.
The Onstage production includes a huge cast — possibly more than can fit the space. (Sometimes actors crawl over the transom like George Romero extras.) The Wild Party proves raucous and raunchy enough to wake the neighbors, just as the overflowing creativity of Onstage Atlanta’s production could be a wake-up call for other Atlanta theaters with musical ambitions.