So farewell, St James Theatre. Hello, The Other Palace – Victoria’s third theatre being rebranded after its purchase by Andrew Lloyd Webber and repositioned as a home for the nurturing of new musicals. To help launch the venue’s new name and purpose, artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills has chosen Michael John LaChiusa’s interpretation of The Wild Party.
The tale of a raucous night of partying by a group of Vaudevillians and their friends, the musical is based on a provocative 1927 narrative poem that proved so controversial that it was banned in some areas of the USA.
Centring around showgirl and party hostess Queenie (Frances Ruffelle) and her aggressive, jealous comedian partner Burrs (John Owen-Jones), the combination of sensuality, danger and 1920s America gives the piece echoes of Chicago.
That feeling is compounded by director and choreographer Drew McOnie’s first ensemble dance sequences, mixing the Charleston and Black Bottom moves in a similar manner to how Bob Fosse generated the latter show’s signature moves.
But whereas Kander and Ebb’s show kicks off its plot early on, in The Wild Party LaChiusa (whose music and lyrics are strung together with a book co-written by George C. Wolfe) keeps his powder dry, choosing instead to introduce us to each of the party attendees in turn.
This has the effect of making much of Act I an anthology of songs, rather than a coherent musical, although McOnie’s eye for motion and storytelling keeps everything flowing as much as the material will let him.
Among the large cast, Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynca stand out as a singing and dancing sibling double-act billed as the D’Armano Brothers, but whose gender identity, and relationship to one another, appears to be fluid.
Tiffany Graves excels as Madelaine, a lesbian whose new love interest seems a little detached from reality, while Dex Lee’s sexually voracious Jackie starts off as an ebullient life of the party, at least until the party’s home-distilled gin takes the place of the champagne, and the evening takes a much darker turn.
And it is not really until that gin starts to flow that the show’s story really starts, although prior to that we are at least treated to the entrance of Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s Kate, Queenie’s best friend and verbal sparring partner.
It is as Kate arrives with Simon Thomas’ Black on her arm that LaChiusa and Wolfe start their story proper, as Queenie and Black find themselves attracted to each other in the sort of deep, romantic way that is both out of place at a debauched party and deeply offensive to their respective partners.
But truth be told, the Queenie/Black plot is tough to engage with. Thomas struggles to make much of a character that is possibly the least well-defined of the whole ensemble, leaving little for Ruffelle to work with to sell the idea of Queenie losing her heart.
The dramatic tension is instead provided by Owen-Jones’ jealousy and rage, along with Lee’s Jackie. As the latter’s sexual appetite disrupts the relationship between the D’Armano Brothers, and his attempts to corrupt naive teenager Nadine (Bronté Barbé), Lee’s aggressive masculinity lends proceedings an air of threat and danger that is never really present in the main plot, however much Owen-Jones can snarl through his manic solos.
But while the story of The Wild Party is somewhat lacking, McOnie and his designer Soutra Gilmour ensure it is never less than compelling to look at.
A gorgeous, Vaudeville-inspired, multi-level set that gives due prominence to musical director Theo Jamieson and his band is the perfect backdrop to McOnie’s choreography.
While Richard Howell’s lighting cues ensure that the eye is drawn to the principal activity in any scene, to move one’s gaze away even momentarily is to find something else of interest to observe in the shadows.
And while it is hard to imagine ever wanting to attend a party hosted by, or featuring, any of the characters observed on stage, their presence at the start of The Other Palace’s journey into supporting musical theatre is welcome. The Wild Party is a musical that it is hard to love; but McOnie, Taylor-Mills and their team have made it impossible not to like.
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