Theatre Cedar Rapids is about to get wild.
Music and mayhem will rock the main stage when audiences are invited to experience “The Wild Party.”
Two versions of “The Wild Party” hit New York stages in 1999-2000, one by Andrew Lippa, the other by Michael John LaChiusa. Both were based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 narrative poem that raised eyebrows at the time flappers were raising hemlines.
Both also had all-star casts. Lippa’s off-Broadway production featured Julia Murney (who starred in Orchestra Iowa’s “Wicked Divas” concert in 2016), Brian d’Arcy James, Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel while LaChiusa’s Broadway production featured Mandy Patinkin, Toni Collette and Eartha Kitt.
The shows differ in style, music and tone, but neither one has become a musical theater staple.
TCR is staging Lippa’s smaller, tighter, darker show, set to a rock-infused jazz score.
All facets of the show combine to put plenty of roar in the Roaring ’20s. Centered around the volatile relationship between vaudeville performers Queenie and Burrs, the play begins with an act of violence that sends Queenie looking for a way out.
“She decides that they’ll throw a huge party and invite all their friends, which they’ve never done, and that she’ll use that party as an attempt to hit on someone else and cause a rift between the two of them, so that she can escape from this relationship,” said guest director Matthew Weedman, 40, of Cedar Falls, assistant professor of theater voice and movement at the University of Northern Iowa.
Soon, the guests are pairing off, fueled by booze, drugs and lust, and the good-time aura “devolves into madness,” Weedman said. Like the hosts, the party guests are actors and performers, so the action is laced with exuberant dancing of the era and a mix of music, including jazz and gospel.
“It’s a little edgier than your average musical,” he said. “It’s a dark play. It deals with sexual assault and a really abusive relationship, it deals with drug abuse, and it doesn’t end happily. There’s no redeeming moment. ... There’s no promise” of happiness for Queenie.
Still, it’s a fun and wild ride, he noted.
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“The fact that the musical is dark shouldn’t make people think that it’s a slog,” he said. “It’s got a really exciting jazz/rock score — a deliberately anachronistic score. It’s fun, it’s sexy. It has moments that are really, really funny, and it has moments that are maybe a little shocking. Overall, it’s an exciting night. It’s an exciting experience to come.”
He jumped at the chance to direct it.
“It’s a big leap — and a pretty bold choice for TCR to have made — to do something that’s a little edgier and a little darker,” he said. “I think they were trying to shake up the season a little bit and provide some really meaty roles for some of the actors.”
The design elements are meaty, as well, with moody, textured lighting and haze. And since it’s based on a poem and not rooted in realism, the team decided not to “recreate an apartment and shove people into it,” Weedman said.
Instead, they’re creating an atmosphere inspired by jazz-era images, using shapes and a color palette to create “a rundown, art deco house with diagonal diamond shapes and platforms,” he said. “It’s a really stripped-down design with a pop of color, and it looks a little used.”
The costumes were a delight for Joni Sackett, 61, of Cedar Rapids, who is in her eighth season as TCR’s costume designer.
“I love any time period,” she said. “That’s something that I always enjoy doing. It’s a different kind of a challenge, but the ’20s is an era that people love.”
From working with ’50s era costumes for “Grease,” she found a good source for period costumes, so she was able to order elaborate beaded party dresses. “I could have gone with a simpler design, but I wanted them to look spectacular,” she said.
And because of the sensual nature of this show, as the party unfolds, most characters shed their outer costumes, so Sackett had to design “inner costumes,” as well, within the realm of good taste.
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“Because of the adult content of the show, we wanted to be sure there’s no nudity whatsoever,” she said. “The undergarments are not particularly skimpy — they’re more than you’d see at Victoria’s Secret.”
Her goal is to have everyone “feel confident and covered.”
Weedman also is feeling confident about his first TCR experience, which came at the invitation of TCR Executive Director Katie Hallman. He’s enjoying the warm welcome he’s received and is especially glad to see this collaboration between artists and organizations.
“It’s really exciting to work on a project like this, because this is a different kind of musical than I’ve worked on in the past,” he said. “Also, it’s really great for me to come down (to TCR). Artists in the in Cedar Valley really need to connect to each other and find ways to expand past our own points of comfort, so it’s been great for me. I’ve enjoyed getting the chance to come to Cedar Rapids and meet huge group of new artists, and hope that we continue to build connections.”
He sees this show as a way to build artistic connections with its audiences, as well.
“We knew it wasn’t the kind of show where we wanted the audience to come in and put their hands in their lap and wait for the play to begin and then just walk out when it’s over,” he said, “but to involve the audience and have them be engaged with these characters and what was happening to them, in a way that was thrilling and taking people on a ride.”
WHAT: “The Wild Party”
WHERE: Theatre Cedar Rapids, 102 Third St. SE
WHEN: Friday (1/26) to Feb. 10; 7:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS: $28 to $36, TCR Box Office, (319) 366-8591 or Theatrecr.org
EXTRA: Opening Night Speakeasy Soiree, 5:30 p.m. Friday (1/26), TCR lobby, free and open to the public, with music by the George Jazz Trio, food and drink specials, photography by Alisabeth Von Presley; 1920s attire encouraged