Baltimore's theater scene is bursting with exciting new companies hotly competing for your attention. Unless you're diligent, you'll miss some good stuff. One company I had missed until last night was Teatro101 currently performing at the Mobtown space at Meadow Mills. Teatro101 apparently plans to specialize in the production of new and/or challenging musicals. And heaven knows, its (by my count) fifth production, The Wild Party, fills that bill.
Think of Chicago, think of Cabaret and of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. If you can imagine a production mid-way among them all (with a little bit of Pagliacci thrown in), you have a pretty clear picture of The Wild Party.
Based on a long scandalous poem by Joseph Moncure March that literally got itself banned in Boston in 1928, it follows a doomed foursome (Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, her boyfriend Burrs, a clown, Queenie's good friend Kate, and Kate's boyfriend Black) on a long day's journey into the night. It is the night of the eponymous wild party, hosted by Queenie and Burrs with the more or less explicit mutual intenti
on of drumming up a rift between them to resolve the sexual boredom that's crept in over their two years together. They get more, and worse, than they bargained for.
The destructive games they play are all Albee's George and Martha, while the cynicism, the strutting dance steps performed by chorines flouncing in vintage underwear is all Kander, Ebb and Fosse. Auteur Andrew Lippa's music isn't up to the Chicago/Cabaret standard, but it certainly has its moments. Lippa writes especially well for multiple voices, sometimes creating sort of a madrigal effect - if one can speak of madrigals sung to a Jazz Age beat and with jazz harmonies. There is a moment (during the song THE JUGGERNAUT) which is almost vocalese (the use of human voices in song to duplicate the effect of jazz instruments). And the cast puts that and many similar musical moments of close harmony over with great, sometimes jaw-dropping skill.
In fact, this cast (all non-Equity except for the two principal leads, Jamie Eacker as Queenie and Kevin S. McAllister as Burrs) are the big reason to see this show. Their singing, dancing, and acting are unexceptionably energetic, and at times much more. Most of them are on stage most of the time, including the intermission, never breaking character. There is something going on almost all the time, and the eye keeps jumping all over the stage to try to keep up, which is tiring in an intimate little house where the audience are virtually on top of the performers, but worthwhile.
The format alternates among scenes advancing the principal story, big choral numbers, and set pieces designed to showcase individual characters, which also gives the rank and file characters and cast members a chance to distinguish themselves. My personal favorite was Lisa Pastella's raucous cameo delivering AN OLD-FASHIONED LOVE STORY, a lament evoking her character's frustrating evening as a lesbian womanizer on the make, which brought the house down.
In the end, of course, the principals have to carry the show, and they do. Queenie, a fascinating amalgam of desirability, anger, despair, and ambivalence, which makes her unknowable and unpredictable but still pitiable, is brought to vivid life by Eacker. McAllister seems to get into the very skin of Burrs, who starts out wearing his clown nose as a joke, and who gradually morphs that image, and indeed his body and face into something far more sinister. Coby Kay Callahan brings out both the pathos and determination of Kate, as she doggedly pursues Burrs through a deepening alcoholic and narcotic haze. As Black, Michael Robinson has the easiest burden: to evince a decent soul who has fallen among damned and been invited to join them. Yet even the restraint this role calls for is not without its challenges, which Robinson well meets.