Rock-n-roll musical fairy tale The Wildness, created by indie rock band Sky-Pony, tackles its themes of doubt, faith, loss, how hard it is to find one’s place in life and what it can cost to break beyond what you think you know of the world, with high energy, commitment, and little bit of tongue-in-cheekness. It wears its influences on its sleeve – a bit of Into the Woods, a little Rent, perhaps a dash of Pippin – but also folds in its own kitschy videos starring creepy broken-down toys, lush steam-punk-meets-Disney-movie costumes and a talismanic world almanac.
The fairy tale core is set within a frame story: a bunch of friends, all of them millennials, relatively new to NYC and confronting the inescapable reality that the dream that brought them there, being an artist, isn’t going to come easy, begin to gather each year at a party called the Wildness, where they can share their doubts and fears, and raise a glass to their hopes and dreams. They do this through the device of this original fairy tale, also called ‘The Wildness’, created by their friend Michael, which tells the story of an isolated village whose inhabitants have been led to believe that they are alone in the world, that the forest that surrounds them is full of predators and evil and that they must never venture outside the borders of their village. But when something goes wrong, the princess Ada (Lilli Cooper) and her handmaiden Zira (Lauren Worsham) sneak out into the forest in search of answers, and what they find will shake the foundations of their belief system.
The tradition of the Wildness party has lasted five years, and each year, in theory, the event gets bigger – more elaborate costumes (including sequined panties that are gleefully shown off); more original songs; a bigger audience – but the core remains the same: the story, and a series of interludes called “overshares” where the participants (and two brave audience members) drop their presentational characters and speak candidly about their fears. This year, the story goes, they’ve taken everything up a notch and are presenting it before us, the audience. Only one problem: Michael has recently disappeared, first from rehearsals and now seemingly from his life. In the spirit of “the show must go on,” his mostly estranged sister, Lilli, familiar with the tale from their childhood, has stepped in.
The frame is cleverly handled; you don’t really (and aren’t meant to) believe that their lead actor has vanished and they’ve just brought in his sister to take over the part (or, for that matter, that the “overshares” are entirely unscripted), but the air of provisionality, of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and turn your trials into your strengths, is so much part of the show’s message that it’s effective anyway. The emotions feel truthful even if the frame is self-consciously constructed.
The music is energetic, high-spirited, and clever, if not incredibly memorable; the most interesting songs to me were the two that were quieter and weirder – the song where Zira imagines herself as one of the supposed dragons haunting the wildness, and the closing number, “Everyone Will Die.” But the vocal arrangements are terrific; Worsham, Cooper, and the other two female singer, Katie Lee Hill, and Sharone Sayegh, are a powerful ensemble. And it’s lovely to see a fairy tale where the male ruler and villagers are really backdrops to the journey of two young women (even if we’re meant to picture one of those young women, Ada, as being played by the absent Michael).
Worsham, in particular, is an extraordinary performer – as Zira, the plucky handmaiden who has just enough strength of character to disobey her mistress sometimes, and in the interludes where she’s just Lauren: a songwriter, an actress, and a woman who’s heavily pregnant (which she is), working through her fears and excitement about bringing a child into the world onstage. Cooper has the much harder task, trying to simultaneously play Ada, indicate that she’s tentative and new to the role of Ada, and work out her ambivalence as Lilli about her missing brother.
There’s nothing particularly new here, but it still feels fresh and has plenty of charm; its blend of kitsch, camp, genuine emotion, high spirits and sincerity somehow works, perhaps better than it should.
The Wildness is on until 19th March. Click here for tickets.