"It always pays to raise the roof!" a femme fatale sings in Andrew Lippa's "The Wild Party," set in Jazz Age New York. Although her maxim may not always hold true, Constellation Theatre Company's investment in Lippa's carousing-themed musical certainly scores. With capital performances by two female leads, valuable humor contributed by supporting players and creditable musicality and dancing, the production reaps a more-than-respectable payoff.
Allison Arkell Stockman directs the show, now at the Source theater, which Lippa based on the 1928 narrative poem "The Wild Party" by Joseph Moncure March. The story centers on two vaudeville performers who, in hopes of reigniting their once-sizzling sexual relationship, throw a rowdy shindig that ends in violence.
The hedonism lets loose on a set that aptly evokes a gone-to-seed art-deco nightclub. (Tony Cisek is scenic designer.) This is the apartment shared by vaudevillians Queenie (Farrell Parker) and Burrs (Jimmy Mavrikes), whose cooling love affair still runs to savage jealousy. When the duo throw a soiree that attracts a hunky stranger named Mr. Black (Ian Anthony Coleman), tempers flare, aggravated in part by Kate (Kari Ginsburg), a vibrant former prostitute, who has her eye on Burrs.
From the show's initial moments, when she stalks through a beaded curtain wearing a pink negligee, while the onstage-but-hidden band delivers slinky, menacing hooks, Parker registers an ice-queen magnetism. She also is a fine singer. Ginsburg matches her castmate's forceful presence and vocal prowess, while adding touches of sneaky humor, turning Kate into a diverting troublemaker whose raucous manner can't quite hide her vulnerability. (Disclosure: Ginsburg was a writing student of mine.)
Coleman's Black comes across as insipid; you can't see him interesting a woman like Queenie. But Mavrikes's Burrs (in clown-style eye makeup and sometimes a red noise, reflecting the character's profession) veers believably between swagger and pathos. Noteworthy supporting turns include Rachel Barlaam's funny portrait of Madelaine True, a lesbian with an aggressively roving eye. Emily Zickler is engagingly ditsy as Mae, the girlfriend of prizefighter Eddie (Calvin Malone); the pair's song-and-dance number, "Two of a Kind," is delightful. (Music director Walter "Bobby" McCoy supervises the show's jazzy, vaudeville-recalling score. Erik Teague designed the atmospheric period costumes.)
Choreographer Ilona Kessell makes ingenious use of the small stage area, devising Roaring Twenties dance sequences that express the characters' restlessness. Now and then, the dancers may not be absolutely in sync, and occasionally a musical line from the band sounds less than confident, but such flaws pale in view of the lively, well-pitched whole.
"The Wild Party" is not a blithe, fun musical: Its characters are starkly pinned between seedy dissolution and desperate boredom, which can be an aggravating place. Still, this well-thought-out production is spirited and flavorful enough to reward an RSVP.
The Wild Party, book, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, based on the poem by Joseph Moncure March. Directed by Allison Arkell Stockman; lighting design, A.J. Guban; sound, Justin Schmitz; properties, Matthew Aldwin McGee; fight choreography, Robb Hunter. With Tiziano D'Affuso, James Finley, Julia Klavans, Christian Montgomery, Patricia "Pep" Targete and Carl Williams. 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets: $25-$55. Through Oct. 29 at Source, 1835 14th St. NW. 202-204-7741. constellationtheatre.org.