This week, Santa Barbara’s Out of the Box Theatre Company is throwing a theme party like no other at Center Stage Theater. April 8-11, the famously adventure-seeking collective is staging a production of the Andrew Lippa musical The Wild Party. Based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 poem of the same name, the story follows one wild night in the apartment of Queenie and Burrs, a volatile romantic pair whose love has started to wane. Over the course of the evening, the couple invites a motley crew of friends and acquaintances into their home to celebrate. But when the booze starts flowing and the dancing kicks into high gear, jealousy and spitefulness bubble to the surface. In anticipation of the show, Out of the Box’s artistic director, Samantha Eve, answered some of our questions about the material and her production.
How did you come to The Wild Party? I had heard some of the music before, sung at recitals or in compilation sheet music books, but I think I became familiar with the show in college, probably through research on the composer and writer, Andrew Lippa.
What drew you to the story? One of the first things I look at when I look at shows for Out of the Box is what sort of story is being told. I like messy, complicated, complex characters and relationships — stories that shine a light on the human condition, explore relevant and relatable issues. The Wild Party has all of this and more. As the show opens, we’re introduced to two very strong personalities in a destructive relationship. They’re hard, they’re desperate, and there’s very little that’s real and genuine for them. The evening’s party quickly turns into a lying match — in order for these people to get what they want, they manipulate. They do whatever they have to. You have Queenie, the chorus dancer who uses her sexuality to get what she wants from men but still finds herself reliant on them and Burrs, a famous Vaudeville clown who struggles to balance his charming showman persona with his true dark nature. They’re wonderful, layered, flawed characters and they make for a really fascinating story.
I have to say, the music was also a key reason for selecting this particular show. It’s been some of the most complicated music we’ve ever taken on in an Out of the Box Theatre Company production, but it’s a show with a spectacular score.
How does the script compare to/pull from the poem? The musical relates very closely to the original poem. There are entire sections of the script spoken rhythmically and whole songs where the lyrics have been pulled directly from the poem. The poem introduces the reader to a larger group of partygoers and has a little more room to explore their individual backgrounds and storylines, whereas the musical focuses primarily on the romantic double-triangle going on between Queenie, Burrs, Kate (Queenie’s friend/enemy), and Black (Kate’s date for the evening).
What are some of the modern-day implications of this specific period play? While this musical does very clearly take place in the 1920s and the vaudeville scene is a major theme in the story, I think a lot of this show is relatable to contemporary theatergoers. The relationship troubles, the personal problems that the characters face over the course of the show, are all timeless. A theme of the show that I find particularly relevant is authenticity. The fact that these partygoers are all performers, and the question soon becomes, where does the acting begin and where does it end?
Do you feel like delving into the world of the 1920s has given you a newfound respect for the world we live in today, or has it made you fetishize life back then more? A little of both, maybe. So much of the music, stage work, and art of the 1920s was truly wonderful and has influenced the contemporary world in a lot of ways… but at the same time, I can’t say I mind not having to deal with fingerwaving my hair every morning.
What’s been the most fun/exciting part of setting this play on these actors? You know, with every single show Out of the Box has undertaken, there has been a moment of utter terror that we won’t be able to find the right actors to fill the roles. Things always have a way of working out, and honestly, I don’t think we could have a more perfect group of actors involved in this production. I’d say the most fun/exciting part has been watching them discover their characters and find their voices and physicality. Justin Rapp, who is playing Burrs, veers from dark and dangerous to loud and playful to a sad, lost little boy in seconds. Rachel Short, our Queenie, slinks across the stage like she knows with the utmost certainty that everyone in the room is watching her. Katherine Bottoms has excellent comic moments as Mae, the diminutive-but-brassy girlfriend of Eddie, a 6’3″ pugilist. They’re taking on characters who, in their own ways, are playing characters, which gives them a lot of freedom to explore larger-than-life choices.
What do you hope people take away from it? This is always such a tricky question, as I’ve always felt that one of the most wonderful things about theater — and about art in general, really — is that any person can take away anything they like from it. I hope people take something away. I hope they leave the theater interested in the production, in the time period, in the story. I hope they leave and debate whether or not the characters were justified in their actions at the party, I hope they rush home and purchase the Original Cast Recording and listen to it in the car for weeks afterward (like I’ve been known to do). Personally, I think there is something really interesting to be said about consequences and strength and weakness — what it means to be a strong person, and what that requires.
The Wild Party is at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo), April 8-11. For tickets and info, call (805) 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org.