It's true, in the world of party and event promotion — from abandoned warehouse to black-tie ballroom — skepticism abounds, and for good reason. Aside from the usual money, cop and safety issues, the hype rarely lives up to the evening's reality and a lame party is still a lame party, even on drugs.
And as far as party concepts go, the further outside the box you think, the more hype and cynicism you'll likely be met with. Enter Casey Miller. Here's a guy whose party scope's orbiting the proverbial box. Hell, his is actually theater, a combined rock show and alternative circus — an indie-wrestling, burlesque spectacle with a gigantic barbeque. He just needed a space that'd let him do it.
In 2002, a friend hipped him to Detroit's marvelous and decrepit Theatre Bizarre, a dormant and creepy site near the old State Fair grounds. Theatre Bizarre's not just a Halloween freakshow of cultish proportion — it's also a sort of small arts commune made up of six seemingly haunted (or, at the very least, crack-ridden) houses. When Miller reached out to Ken Poirier, who runs TB with John Dunivant, Poirier kept it short on the phone: "Sorry, we don't do that kind of stuff."
But Miller kept him on the line long enough to explain just how odd (Michigan indie-wrestlers competing to the sounds of live Detroit rock) and eccentric (since when do burlesque and barbecue go together?) his concept was. Strange and eccentric — he had located Theatre Bizarre's G-spot. That was seven years ago. Dubbed the Squared Circle Revue, this past year's party brought in about 900 revelers over two days.
After the Revue's first run, Miller became a regular at the Halloween parties, eventually becoming a stage manager. Today, he lives there.
Miller's a bit of a wrestling nut. He embraces its history, which led him to produce Revolucha, a Cinco de Mayo celebration of traditional Lucha Libre held at Clark Park in Mexicantown. He brings in legends the likes of Eddie Guerro, matching them with what Miller describes as a "local surplus of world-class indie wrestlers." There's even a DVD you can cop at nationwide retailers.
But he also embraces the theatrical elements: "You have to write a story, but you only have to write a beginning and an end — you let the guys fill in the middle." It was this age-old model Miller used for his next, most ambitious, project.
Wonderland is Miller's strange and eccentric variety show adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), which he produced with a bunch of his Theatre Bizarre brethren. Jason McCombs, a TB resident who makes up half of the A/V DJ set called Los Minstrels del Diablo, helped write and direct. Dunivant lent his expertise as animator and art director, and Questions frontman Drew Bardo, a TB regular, brought in Rabeah Lteif of the Electric Lions to help score. The young Detroit-by-way-of-Delaware transplant, Haley Jane (an up-and-coming Detroit artist), not only narrates and sings as Alice, she also handled costumes.
The efficient result of working as a collective with a bunch of creatives isn't lost on Miller, who basically credits Detroit as a silent partner in the production. "No one's greedy; no one's trying to make a million dollars," he says. "Detroit is as good of a place in the world to hone your skills — if you want to go big and loud this is where you do it, because this is where you can get away with it. If I wanted to do this show in Chicago or New York, considering set design, a venue and costumes, there'd just be no way, not on two bullshit credit cards."
But the production doesn't come off as the spoils two bullshit credit cards could provide. Wonderland, to the credit of good old hard work and talent, offers more professional promise than that.
Featuring break dancers (Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum), burlesque strippers (Alice and White Rabbit), a suspension act (Mad Hatter and the Hare), a mischievous glass orb juggler (Cheshire Cat), a belly dancer and a bungee chord aerial act (the hookah-tokin' Catepillar), we get a drugs, sex and rock retelling of the Alice's trip of all trips. "In the last two and a half years, I've noticed that all around the Detroit area there's a rise in performance-based characters and variety show people," Miller notes. "There are acts like, Satori Circus, the Detroit Circus Guild, this weird circus character with a spinning umbrella and swirly glasses named Ringmaster Zeb who's always 'on,' and there's the rise in burlesque too. It's a new culture of people that aren't in bands but are still performers and still have that very raw, very Detroit feel."
On stage, most acts have no speaking lines; they pantomime the action in front of an impressive, 15-foot-tall, animated book that helps move the story while providing a background for all scenes. Narrators and singers stand with the Glass Orphan Band offstage. Dunivant's hand-made plywood cutouts make up the set design. The rest is imagination, and it goes a long way.
Taking dialogue away from the stage acts goes back to that wrestling model ... and practicality.
"I wanted to make it as easy as possible on the performers," Miller says. "Casting it, we picked out characters from the book that we figured would best fit with certain stage acts. Doing their acts in costume provides the context, but I didn't want them to have to memorize lines. Instead, we have a beginning and an end, and the performers know where we need to go, but, as far as stage action, it's up to them on how we get there."
There were just four months between the point of conception (Miller was inspired by a loosely Alice-themed burlesque show Wonderland star Roxi Dlite put on in Windsor) and this year's late March premiere at the Motor City Movie House inside the Russell Industrial Center. With an ultimate goal of taking Wonderland on the road, or to Las Vegas, the production has moved to the Hastings Street Ballroom. "By taking it to a traditional theater, we're experiencing problems that we could run into on tour, and we need to know how and where we might need to adjust," Miller says.
Before conquering America though, Miller wants to conquer New Year's Eve, a night he says he has a vendetta against.
"I have a thing about New Year's Eve parties, I've been burned on too many of 'em — left disappointed, broke and sober. Wonderland seemed like a great vehicle to enact my revenge."
The party, which will be shot in HD for an upcoming DVD, will feature a Wonderland-inspired cuisine by local food artist Sarah Lachowski (Karmic Café). "Imagine a cupcake filled with pasta in the shape of a rose with themed paint cans filled with sauce and culinary brushes. Paint your rose red ... then eat it!" Miller says. With Audra Kubat performing a Wonderland-inspired set of original songs, the night will set off with a "drink me" Champagne toast at midnight — "there's nothing's more anti-climatic than a botched countdown," chimes Miller, "and then we're going to make a huge mess." When the audience is finally fed and drunk, they'll sit down for Wonderland.
When what would once be considered an "underground" party gets attention from the dailies and goes down at a joint with a liquor license, does that mean it loses cred? Nah, it means it's sustainable. Ain't that a trip down the rabbit hole ...?
Wonderland runs New Year's Eve through Jan. 2, 2010, at the Hastings Street Ballroom, 715 W. Milwaukee St., Detroit. Tickets available at Showtime clothing and whooareyou.com.Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]