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Jazz Age japes in The Wild Party

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Joseph Moncure March's book-length Jazz Age poem, The Wild Party, more than lives up to its wanton title. Published in 1928 and immediately banned in Boston, it's a staccato tale of orgiastic sex, drugs, drink and murderous jealousy among the scuzzy showbiz set in lower Manhattan. William S. Burroughs said it was the tome that made him want to be a writer.

When the book's copyright expired in the 1990s, two composers raced to get their adaptations to market. Andrew Lippa's off-Broadway version, now reprised in an uneven staging at North Raleigh Arts & Creative Theatre, opened a month before Michael LaChiusa's Broadway take.

Queenie and Burrs are marquee names at the height of Vaudeville—a dancer and a "scary clown" who've been kidding themselves that their relationship is strictly about sex, no strings. When Burrs gets out of hand, Queenie plots revenge; she'll humiliate him at the titular affair by dropping him for another man. When her old frenemy Kate shows up with a suitable candidate, a toothsome and naïve Black, redress begins.

Music director David Oberst and his band and chorus get full credit for tackling the nervy, syncopated dissonance of Lippa's intimidating score, which lands somewhere between hard bop and Bartk. But standout cast members such as Anne-Caitlin Donohue as Queenie and Melanie Carviou as a deliciously wicked Kate draw attention to those who aren't on the same level.

On Saturday night, that unfortunately included James Ilsley as Burrs, one of the self-doomed lovers anchoring this work. Ilsley has given us scary clowns before—remember Raleigh Little Theatre's The Rocky Horror Show? But this role requires a tricky combination of sexuality, vulnerability and menace. The night we saw it, Ilsley was still working on that chemistry problem. And Ben Muller's Black kept up with the pack, but never surpassed it.

Also, supporting actor Jon Todd left Eddie, the prizefighter who starts a fateful brawl in act two, as little more than a cipher.

Audio designer Mike Anderson was still struggling to balance singers against orchestra in a room whose recent redesign changed its acoustics. Among the singers who could be heard, Natalie Turgeon gave a delectable account of "An Old-Fashioned Love Story," Carviou nailed "Look at Me Now" and "The Life of the Party," and Donohue sizzled on "Out of the Blue" before waxing plaintive on "Who is this Man?"

Ambition is too often lacking in regional theater. The Wild Party is one of NRACT's most ambitious productions ever. On the night we saw it, it showed how far NRACT has come—and how far it still has to go.

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