Canuck Casts Shine in The Wild Party and Once
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Canuck Casts Shine in The Wild Party and Once

The stories and music come from other places and times, but Canadian companies make two musicals their own, and for the better.

Queenie (Cara Ricketts) and Burrs (Daren A  Hebert) thrown one Wild Party  Photo by Racheal McCaig

Queenie (Cara Ricketts) and Burrs (Daren A. Hebert) thrown one Wild Party. Photo by Racheal McCaig.

The Wild Party
Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street)
Runs until March 8
4 Stars

Ed Mirvish Theatre (244 Victoria Street)
Runs until June 28
4 Stars

It’s a busy time for Toronto musicals, with a new professional production of Cannibal! The Musical debuting at the Panasonic, plus these two shows: the return of Once, this time with an all Canadian cast, and the Canadian debut of The Wild Party, produced by local company Acting Up Stage. All three of these shows are already high profile creative properties, but we’re happy to note that they succeed based on the strength of their Canadian creative teams.

It’s been 15 years since Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s The Wild Party, an adaptation of a poem by Joseph Moncure March, became the toast of Broadway and won multiple Tony Awards. Rights issues being what they are, it often takes a few years for a hot Broadway property to cross to our side of the border, but 15 years is an unusually long time.

Producing company Acting Up Stage has said that, after they won the rights, they wanted to take their time to assemble an A-list ensemble for the large cast required. And it’s an exceptional ensemble, make no mistake, chock-full with many of Canada’s best actor-singer talents. Credit Acting Up Stage and partnering company Obsidian Theatre’s sterling reputations–plus the fact that every role in the show is interesting, even the smaller character roles.

Set in the New York City’s 1920s Jazz Age, The Wild Party takes place over one night, as vaudeville starlet Queenie (a sensational Cara Ricketts) and her blackface clown paramour, the mercurial Burrs (Daren A. Hebert), host a bacchanalian bust-up for a wide assortment of showbiz types, from aging divas to giddy producers, all looking forward to overindulging in some bathtub gin once the party’s in full swing. The show kicks off at a breakneck pace, with an opening number that introduces Queenie and the various hangers-on she attracts. It continues at that high energy level as the various party attendees arrive and announce themselves during the “promenade”: Miss Madeleine True (Lisa Horner) and her inscrutable performance artist (or guttersnipe) girlfriend Sally (Eden Richmond); gay song and dance duo Oscar (David Lopez) and Phil (J. Cameron Barnett), perhaps the most animated pair in a room full of them; ambitious money men Gold (Josh Epstein) and Goldberg (Larry Mennell); a retired prizefighter (Sterling Jarvis), his brassy wife (Rebecca Auerbach), and her naive underage cousin (Sarite Harris); hedonist playboy Jackie (Stephen Patterson), and fading self-proclaimed legend Delores Montoya (Susan Gilmour.)

The party is in full swing, with the score settling into a groove, when high profile singer Kate (Sara-Jeanne Hosie), who has a complicated past with Queenie, arrives, with mysterious companion Black (Dan Chameroy) in tow. It’s the arrival of these last two that sends the party spinning off its already erratic axis; that, and the ladling out of the bathtub gin. Tensions and rivalries come bubbling to the surface, and before the end of the marathon shindig, violence will erupt.

The Wild Party shares a number of similarities with Chicago: time period, music styles, showbiz personalities, and especially, a sizeable number of juicy roles for women. But where Chicago focuses on the macro of a larger society, The Wild Party focuses on a micro scale of one night, and a distinct slice of social climbers. Like Amos Hart’s “Mr. Cellophane”, most of the characters get their own song, or more, for development; it’s a balancing act, all those individual storylines mingling with the main storyline of Queenie and Burr’s deteriorating relationship, but because of the strength of the cast, it works.

Ian Lake and Trish Lindström. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Wild Party is making its professional Canadian Theatre debut, but Once, the musical based on the Oscar-winning musical romance, has been in Toronto before. This time around, however, it’s an all Canadian cast, and again, any issues we might have had with flaws in the source material are ameliorated by the first class national talent on stage.

Trish Lindstrom in particular is a revelation in the role of “Girl”, the Czech immigrant woman who drops into the life of Dubliner “Guy” (Ian Lake) just as he’s about to give up on his music, and inspires him to pursue a career with his songs. Her “Girl” is less reticent than her film counterpart, but her frank and funny demeanour is never cartoonish, and early worries that she may end up being a “manic pixie dream girl” stereotype are dispelled as we start to see how her own complicated personal life is affected by her association with the heartbroken “Guy”.

Once is a traditional story, with “Guy” and “Girl” clearly the leads, but the supporting cast is no less important than that of The Wild Party. A large part of that is due to the music all being played on stage, with the performers playing their own instruments, and there’s plenty of, say, ferocious fiddling by Stephanie Cadman and Emily Lukasik. There are also strong supporting turns by Brandon McGibbon as an unpredictable drummer, and Laurie Murdoch as “Guy”‘s widowed father.

Early arrivees to the Ed Mirvish Theatre get a chance to walk onto the stage, order a pint from the bar there, and enjoy a pre-show performance by the band. Once is a very family friendly show – more so than The Wild Party, which is drenched in excess and lust. In both cases, though, audiences will get a chance to see what talented Canadian performers, and the companies employing them, can do with internationally recognized material. We’re looking forward to the day when we regularly get to see Canadian-created content given the same recognition and treatment, but for now, two out of three (cast and company) ain’t bad at all.