Brimming with sex, violence and substance abuse, Andrew Lippa's musical adaptation of Joseph Moncure March's 1920s narrative poem The Wild Party is pretty racy fare for relatively sedate Theatre Hopkins.
But Todd Pearthree's direction, choreography and casting imbue The Wild Party with a style that elevates the material above its seamy foundation, without falsely prettifying it.
Just watch the ensemble slither across the stage in tightly choreographed unison, displaying a movement vocabulary that can change in a moment from celebratory to predatory. Or the way the chorus turns into a testifying church congregation in the hymn-like "Let Me Down." Or the comical way the guests introduce "What a Party," holding mug-shot numbers across their chests.
Lippa's adaptation itself, however, does mistakenly prettify the plot of March's poem in one respect. The poem begins with a fight in which Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, pulls a knife on her lover, Burrs, a mean-tempered clown. Then she decides to give a party.
In Lippa's version, Queenie hopes to use this party to get back at, and break up with, Burrs, but instead of mere revenge, she finds true, sweet love with a man named Black. When the party ends in violence, Queenie sings, "How Did We Come to This?" Despite her gentle romance with Black, her previous behavior makes the answer so obvious that a murder elicited inappropriate laughter at the performance I attended.
This flaw, however, is no reflection on the fine performances, starting with Lauren Spencer-Harris' Queenie, a spirited kewpie-doll who's not half as tough as she thinks she is, and Shawn Doyle's malevolent Burrs, who's even tougher than he thinks. Also notable are Liz Boyer Hunnicutt, who delivers a humorous "Old-Fashioned [Lesbian] Love Story," and Shannon Wollman, who belts out a self-satisfied "Look at Me Now."
Unlikely as it may seem, four years ago Lippa's show was one of two musical Wild Party's to open in New York in the same season. The other, by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, was truer to its source and stronger overall, with a more consistent period-flavored score and vaudeville-inspired staging. Theatre Hopkins, regrettably, has chosen the lesser party, but Pearthree and company do it up with panache.
Theatre Hopkins performs in the Merrick Barn on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University. Show times are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:15 p.m. Sundays, through July 4. Tickets are $15. Call 410-516-7159.
Jonathan Tolins' If Memory Serves is a slick comedy that takes potshots at everything from sitcoms to repressed memory therapy. It weaves in enough mystery to keep you guessing between laughs.
At the Vagabond Players, Holly Pasciullo plays a former TV star named Diane Barrow who became known as "America's sweetheart" for her portrayal of an archetypal mom on a long-running sitcom. But that was 20 years ago, and now Diane is hoping something -- anything -- will stir up her uneventful life.
Enter her son, Russell (Robbie Heacock), who has abandoned graduate school to "figure things out." When Russell creates a piece of satiric performance art, the press misinterprets it as a revelation that his mother abused him as a child. Suddenly, life is more eventful than Diane or Russell could have imagined.
One of the best things about Tolins' witty, self-referential script is that it takes nothing seriously, including itself. John Ford's direction keeps the humor bright and the mystery brewing. Pasciullo's Diane is a credible TV star -- but one who's savvy about herself and the world around her. And Laurel Peyrot and Vicki Margolis prove nimble quick-change artists in various roles.
In 1993, Tolins' Twilight of the Golds, a play about homosexuality, genetic selection and Wagner's Ring Cycle, played a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center. If Memory Serves, which debuted five years later, shows a playwright adept at blending hot-button issues with cultural references, both high and low.
His touch is lighter in Memory, but the play also has something to say: Stop whining and get on with your life. Attending this production isn't a bad way to start.
Show times at the Vagabonds, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through July 3. Tickets are $12. Call 410-563-9135.
A recast `Hairspray'
Hairspray has some new highlights in its Broadway coiffure. Carly Jibson, who starred as tubby Tracy Turnblad when the musical launched its national tour at the Mechanic Theatre in September, is now playing the role in New York. Co-starring as her mother, Edna (the role created by Harvey Fierstein), is Michael McKean, whose credits include such films as This is Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind, as well as the ABC series Laverne & Shirley.
Re-visiting the show, the New York critics wrote:
Justin Glanville, Associated Press: "Despite a nearly full rotation in its cast since opening two years ago, Hairspray seems, if anything, more charming on second viewing."
Ben Brantley, The New York Times: "... if Mr. McKean's performance is more creditable than credible, it should be said that he executes it without flinching and, more important, without winking. ... [Jibson] combines the nubile glow of adolescence with the confidence of an old pro. ... What this recast Hairspray does best, and what makes it worth revisiting, is to highlight the randy rhythms in early rock 'n' roll that made parents fear for their children's chastity."
Gordon Cox, Newsday: "As it heads into its second anniversary on Broadway, the bouffant of Hairspray has started to sag a little, with some of its crisp energy beginning to lose hold. ... But it still retains enough body and volume that when the closing number asserts, `You Can't Stop the Beat,' you're inclined to agree."
In further Hairspray news, Bruce Vilanch, who stepped into Edna's pumps at the Mechanic, will succeed McKean on Broadway in October.