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Ill-fated love affair, set to song and dance, at Laurel Mill Playhouse

Jazz (Music Genre)Broadway TheaterDance

When community theater vaudeville landed on Main Street in the Laurel Mill Playhouse's spring production of Andrew Lippa's "The Wild Party" weekend before last, it roared.

Based on Joseph Moncure March's 1928 narrative poem of the same name — banned in Boston due to risqué content — "The Wild Party" debuted off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in 2000, earning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music and the 1999-2000 Obie Award for Best Choreography.

Produced as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2004, the operetta resurfaced to rave reviews at the Houston's Bayou City Theatrics just last year.

Directed at the Playhouse by Michael V. Hartsfield, of Laurel, with musical direction by Alice Laurissa and Stephen Deininger; choreography by Terrence Bennett; and produced by Laurel resident Maureen Rogers and David Hale, "Wild Party" tells the brutal tale of an ill-fated love affair between a dancer, Queenie, and a vaudeville clown named Burrs.

Scenic designer James Raymond has worked his usual magic on the minimalist set that represents New York City opulence in the 20s; Joanna Cross and Hayley North's jazzy costume design beautifully complement his black, red and gold theme.

Situated backstage behind Queenie's upstage bedroom, the Pit Band — featuring Laurissa, Elaine Beckman, Tod Wildason, Nicholas Delaney, Steve Shivers, Daniel Galka, David Booth, Kiarra Johnson and Miranda Daughton — performs tactfully for the most part.

Hartsfield and Laurissa have assembled a talented cast and orchestra to tackle Lippa's eclectic mix of jazz, vaudeville and gospel; riveting stand-alone songs and vocal solos, as well as Bennett's mostly clean choreography of the dance numbers, easily overshadow a choppy plot.

The leads, nicely played by Samantha McEwen as the beauty Queenie, and veteran thespian Deininger as the beastly Burrs, are hardly star-crossed lovers. Queenie goes through men like candy until she settles on the clown, a charismatic sexual predator whose volatile nature excites her like no other lover.

"The Opening's" pivotal sex scene — beautifully enacted by McEwen, Deininger and the Ensemble, and the first taste of Felicia Akunwafor's funky vocals — foretells darkening passions that will end in tragedy.

Queenie and Burrs live together, briefly content, until Queenie's ardor begins to cool and Burrs proves a dangerous bedfellow. She proposes rekindling the excitement that brought them together by throwing a party to end all parties. He agrees, and the mania begins.

Enter an entourage of flapping vamps and jealous men: Emily Sergo as Kate, Carl Williams as Black, Akuwafor as Madelaine True (the lesbian), Daniel Douek as Eddie (the thug), Cross as Mae (the dimwit), David Hale as Phil, Raymond as Oscar, Marquis Evans as Max, Steven Baird as Sam (the producer), North as Jackie (the dancer), Avia Fields as Nadine (the minor, also played by Christa Kronser), Dorian Elie as Kegs, and Laurel residents Eva Njoku as Dolores (the hooker) and LaAngel Hall as Reno.

As Kate, Sergo bursts onto stage in a dazzling red dress belting vocals to match in "Look at Me Now," and introduces her date, the charismatic Black, into Burrs' circle. Burrs stalks the minor Nadine, Queenie reciprocates by flirting with Black, and Kate pursues Burrs with a vengeance.

As Black, Williams' vocals are smooth as silk in "Poor Child" near the end of Act 1, just prior to Akunwafor's delivery of a standout performance of "An Old-Fashioned Love Story."

McEwen as Queenie and Williams create lovely chemistry in "The Gal for Me" and "Intro to Come With Me."  And Williams' stellar performance of "I'll Be Here" warrants special mention.

"The Fight," choreographed by Douek and Deininger and performed by the Ensemble, Queenie, Black, and Kate, is also outstanding.

Deininger handles most of his vocals quite well, but leans too far towards growling in "What Is It About Her."

Whenever a show opens at Laurel Mill Playhouse featuring a stellar cast with a near perfect solo by opera-trained McEwen, the audience is likely in for an evening of thrills.

 In spite of a few tonal wrinkles and production missteps, the Laurel Mill Playhouse's "Wild Party" is not only great fun to watch, but has the potential to be outstanding across the board as it continues to run.

"Wild Party" continues through May 17, Friday and Saturday, at 8 p.m.; with a matinee performance on Sunday, May 11, at 2 p.m. General admission is $20. Students, 18 and under; and seniors, 65 and over, pay $15. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2. Note: Partial nudity and adult themes.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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