The poem tells the story of Queenie, a chorus girl, and Burrs, her clown (literally) partner; both are lost, angry souls. After an argument that threatens to explode into violence, the two decide to entertain themselves by inviting friends over for a party, and those friends are a lewd lot representing just about every taboo you can think of: a pair of possibly incestuous brothers; a lesbian stripper accompanied by a half-comatose woman whom she found crawling on the ground and says she loves; a couple of Broadway producers arguing over whether one of them should change his name from Goldberg to Gold in order to sound less Jewish; a failed boxer; an aging chanteuse; a teenager who desperately wants to get on Broadway; and Queenie’s tough-minded frenemy, Kate.
“The Wild Party” inspired a 2000 musical by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe that didn’t last long on Broadway; a different version created at roughly the same time by Andrew Lippa didn’t even get as far as that. There’s not a lot of juice in a story about shitty, vacuous people behaving shittily. The Denver Center’s version of LaChiusa’s work sugarcoats nothing; you get all the sleaze, along with cocaine, bathtub gin and squirmy simulated sex. But the brilliance of this production — and the reason you don’t want to miss it — lies in the staging.
Billed as an immersive experience, The Wild Party takes place in the Hangar at Stanley Marketplace, where you find yourself slap-bang in the middle of the party. While it may not be true to the grimy spirit of the text, this just may be the glamorous bash of your dreams. Encouraged to dress up for the occasion, many of the people around you will be wearing glittery tops and 1920s headbands complete with feathers. Everyone is dispersed on period furniture in what feels like a brilliantly lit apartment — little, glinting colored lights, bigger lights, a chandelier. The actors move among the seated guests, touching seductively, improvising, whispering, coaxing everyone to dance, offering a slug of gin, sometimes coming so close you can see a tear forming or smell perspiration. (I don’t think I was supposed to hug wondrous jazz singer Leonard Barrett, who plays louche Oscar D’Armano, when he slipped an arm around me, but how could anyone resist?) And with your neighbors so beautifully attired, sometimes you can’t tell them from the characters. There are no torn stockings, soiled clothes or bruised white faces here, but a bright celebration — even though director Amanda Berg Wilson still gives the script’s unfurling darkness its full due.
This is the Denver Center’s second experiment with immersive work; last year’s was the rather kinder Sweet & Lucky, in which the audience was led from room to magical room. With this staging, there’s a danger of audience members getting so swallowed up in the party that they don’t follow the narrative. Fortunately, the direction is skillful, and the performers, led by Emily Van Fleet’s electrifying Queenie, have the strong voices and charisma necessary to dominate the room as the action moves from scene to scene. The only problem is that sometimes you hear a voice and simply can’t see whose it is for a few minutes because your view is blocked by a pillar or someone’s head. Still, in a way this adds to the veracity of the event: How often have you been at a party and heard raised voices coming from a corner or the hallway outside and tried to figure out just what was happening?
The music, played by a skilled six-person orchestra, is varied and exhilarating. The singing can come from above and behind, shoot across the entire space, or emanate from someone standing right beside you; it can take the form of a single throbbing voice or a chorus that fills the space with sound. I’d be surprised if anyone feels deeply for the doomed characters — certainly I didn’t — but they do hold attention, astonish, disgust or amuse and, very occasionally, as when Queenie and Laurence Curry’s Black sing the wistful “People Like Us,” have the power to move us.
The Wild Party, presented by Denver Center for the Performing Arts Off Center through October 31, Hangar at Stanley Marketplace, 800-641-1222, denvercenter.org.