The invitation: Come to The Wild Party for the debut of freeFall Theatre, which is staging the musical by Michael John LaChiusa (music, lyrics and book) and George C. Wolfe (book) in an art gallery, the Studio@620 in downtown St. Petersburg.
First impression: Hey, this really is a party. The gallery has been transformed into a Jazz Age pleasure dome, furnished with comfortable (well, mostly) sofas and chairs. Audience members mingle and schmooze, sipping wine or beer or soda, munching cheese and crackers. Artwork on the walls — by Susan Supper, Spencer Meyers and Patrick Fatica — sets a lurid tone. Eric Davis, the director, stands on a cabinet to make a speech, then sits at a table to watch the show. The opening number, Queenie Was a Blonde, is a dazzler.
History repeats itself: The musical was inspired by Joseph Moncure March's narrative poem about a decadent bash that ends badly. It came to be seen as a metaphor for the 1929 stock market crash.
The hosts: Queenie, magnificently portrayed by Lee Anne Mathews, is a sexy, hard-eyed vaudeville dancer. She's a tough cookie, but Mathews suggests her vulnerability, too. Her boyfriend, Burrs (David Foley Jr.), is a black-face comedian (he blacks up in the garish finale), a cut-rate Al Jolson with a violent temper.
The guests: The large cast includes top-flight performers in sharply etched character roles, such as Wayne LeGette and John Lombardi as hapless producers; Becca McCoy as a lesbian stripper; Patte DePova as the alluring Kate, Queenie's friend and rival; the brother act Oscar (William Cortez-Statham) and Phil (Michael Dexter); and Roxanne Fay as Dolores, the dragon lady who delivers the party's devastating coup de grace, When It Ends.
The music: The Wild Party may be LaChiusa's best work, with its funky mix of vaudeville and jazz played by a five-piece combo, but there's a sourness to the score that can be off-putting.
The gallery as theater: For the most part, being immersed in the show works well, if you don't mind dodging the occasional spilled drink. It's exciting to have an actor belt out her solo while writhing on the floor at your feet. I also like the way some characters make their entrance through the front door, as if they'd been strolling down First Avenue S and decided to drop in. A downside of the gallery setting is that sight lines are sometimes blocked.
Should you go to the party? Yes, it's a stylish happening, but don't expect to be humming a tune when you leave the show.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.