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STAGE REVIEW

Trashy and wicked, 'Party' is a lot of fun

Sarah Corey and Todd Alan Johnson in New Repertory Theatre's "The Wild Party." (andrew brilliant/brilliant pictures)

WATERTOWN -- "Repulsive and fascinating, vicious and vivacious," one critic said of Joseph Moncure March's poem "The Wild Party" when it was first published, just before the Twenties stopped roaring. In the decades since, this lurid, violent, rhyming saga of the vaudeville dancer Queenie, her lover Burrs the clown, and the deadly fete they throw one night has lost none of its nasty allure.

March's poem was quickly banned in Boston. William Burroughs called it the book that made him want to be a writer. Art Spiegelman paid tribute with an illustrated edition in 1994. And "The Wild Party" inspired not one but two musical adaptations -- one of which, the Andrew Lippa Off Broadway version, is now casting its dark glow on the New Repertory Theatre's stage.

Never having seen Michael John LaChiusa's version, I won't join the fierce debate over the relative merits of the two musicals. But in New Rep artistic director Rick Lombardo's glamorously decadent staging, Lippa's show packs the smooth, deadly punch of a shot of absinthe.

Janie E. Howland's terrific set establishes the mood from the opening scene. Funhouse mirrors gleam on the back wall of exposed brick; a larger rectangle to the side slyly morphs into a poster first of Queenie, then of Burrs, as we meet this bawdy, brawling pair. It only gets better -- darker, meaner, tawdrier -- as night falls and the temperature rises in their seedy flat. Electric candles slither down on wires, a rumpled brass bed slides seductively into place as needed, an ancient Victrola hisses and blares, and even the apartment's filthy, depressing bathroom is evoked in dingy detail.

This makes it easy for Lombardo to have a couple of key moments take place with one or another character ensconced on the toilet. And whether you love or hate that idea will give you a good sense of whether this is the musical for you.

For certain, it's a directorial touch very much in the spirit of the piece. Both March's poem and Lippa's setting of it (which blends jazz with more anachronistic idioms in a pulsing, intoxicating blur) are truly decadent -- not in the debased chocolate-dessert sense that gets bandied about these days, but with the reek of true and troubling decay that lies at the word's root. Queenie's a hard, mean dame, Burrs is a brutish lout, and neither one of them gets much in the way of redemption as the night wears on.

That gives their battles and schemes a certain poisonous glamour, but it also lowers the emotional stakes. He beats her, she cheats on him, so what? -- they're both rotten. And swirling around them is a crowd of equally repellent revelers: dancers and fighters, hookers and flirts. They all look corrosively gorgeous here, especially as Kelli Edwards's slinky choreography sends them strutting and preening around in Frances Nelson McSherry's delicious costumes, but it's hard to imagine any hearts beating under the silk and feathers.

Which may be just your cup of hemlock. Lombardo certainly serves it with panache, and he's assembled a magnificent cast to put it across. Todd Alan Johnson's Burrs is just as terrifying as his Sweeney Todd was a few years back, just as vocally overpowering, and just as disturbing in his air of seductive menace. Aimee Doherty, who stepped in over the weekend for the ailing Marla Mindelle as Queenie, is a bit too sweet and fresh for the part, but her rich voice and delicately expressive face more than compensate.

They're given strong backup by Sarah Corey and Maurice E. Parent as the pawns in their cheating game, though Corey's vivid belting sometimes sacrifices clarity for power. And Leigh Barrett has a wildly amusing turn as the lusting, lovelorn Madelaine True.

With a clear and insistent beat, Todd C. Gordon's musical direction keeps them all dancing and singing long into the night. There'll be hell to pay come morning, but perhaps that's the price of a wicked bash.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

'Related'

The Wild Party

Musical by Andrew Lippa, based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March

Direction and musical staging: Rick Lombardo. Music direction, Todd C. Gordon. Choreography, Kelli Edwards. Set, Janie E. Howland. Costumes, Frances Nelson McSherry. Lights, Franklin Meissner Jr. Sound, Lombardo.

At: New Repertory Theatre, Watertown, through May 20. Tickets, $30-55. 617-923-8487, newrep.org

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