STEEPED in decadence and crackling with sexual tension, Michael John LaChiusa's dark, edgy musical "The Wild Party" makes its West Coast debut in a gripping staging by Blank Theatre Company.
Adapted in 2000 by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe from Joseph Moncure March's 1928 poem, this portrait of Prohibition-era indulgence and debauchery uses mature content as a portal into the innermost demons of a pair of hard-luck Broadway wannabes and their tortured party guests.
Multi-talented Valarie Pettiford and Eric Anderson prove riveting as quarreling lovers bound together by nothing but their basest needs and impulses. Pettiford's Queenie sizzles as a sexually ambitious chorine who likes her jazz wild, her liquor strong and her men hard-working. As her partner, Burrs, Anderson evokes a scarily convincing washed-up vaudeville clown consumed by obsession and self-loathing, whose forced bonhomie thinly masks his smoldering rage over Queenie's infidelities.
The party they throw is an attempt to patch their foundering relationship with hedonistic excess, but instead it brings each face to face with futility.
LaChiusa's place at the forefront of the contemporary book musical is well-demonstrated in "The Wild Party's" soul-baring songs. Queenie's despair after a momentary authentic emotional connection, Burrs' harrowing, gin-fueled descent into homicidal fury -- erupt in luminously crafted lyrics to which both performers do full justice.
Just as impressive is the way the party guests spring so fully to life through a song or two: a jaded stage diva (Sally Kellerman); a prizefighter (James Black) whose fame can't pierce racial barriers; a lesbian stripper (Kirsten Benton Chandler) and her new street waif conquest (Daisy Eagan); and the ambivalent history between Queenie and her best friend (Jane Lanier). Although never less than adequate, singing abilities vary among the ensemble.
As in the Blank's 2002 staging of LaChiusa's "First Lady Suite," director Daniel Henning shows great insight with the composer's character-driven songs. But whereas that show was all about delicacy and nuance, "The Wild Party" explodes with frenetic energy born of desperation.
Some first-rate production numbers feature song-and-dance team Nathan Lee Graham and Daren A. Herbert, and the five-piece jazz orchestra smokes under David O's musical direction. Dana Peterson's excellent period costumes notwithstanding, the material could be better served with higher production values and a more expansive set.
Nevertheless, this gutsy staging delivers where it matters most -- in LaChiusa's songs of searing character revelation.
'The Wild Party'
Where: Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: Nov. 20
Price: $25 to $40
Contact: (323) 661-9827
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes