The Wild Party review at the Other Palace, London – ‘sizzling and sensational’
The Other Palace, formerly London’s St James Theatre, is holding a wild, wild party to mark its relaunch. Under the ownership of Andrew Lloyd Webber, it will become a home for brand-new musicals, or ones that are new to Britain. It gets off to a sizzling, dark and insinuating start with Michael John LaChiusa’s dazzling jazz-age musical, a show thatpremiered on Broadway in 2000 in a short-lived production.
That first outing was partly defeated by the fact that it went head-to-head with another musical with the identical title, based on the same source material – a 1928 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March that had just come out of copyright – that opened in the same season. The competition, and public confusion, damaged both.
The other version, scored by Andrew Lippa, is brighter and lighter and more immediately accessible. (Rights to perform it are sadly no longer available outside North America). But LaChiusa’s musically vivid, vivacious portrait of this 1920s New York party feels, like the party itself, soaked in a bathtub of gin and invested with cocaine highs and lows. It provides a dizzying, brassy sense of propulsion to the overlapping stories being played out among its characters, who variously swap partners and drive each other to jealousy, rage and ultimate disaster.
Like Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, it is staged as a musical vaudeville, taking its reference from its lead characters Queenie – who, as the poem has it, “was a blonde and her age stood still/ And she danced twice a day in the vaudeville” – and her partner Burrs, who is an Al Jolson-style singer. The show-within-the-show element is amplified by having Theo Jamieson’s tremendous band constantly in view on the upper platform of Soutra Gilmour’s set, offering a view of the vaudeville stage and fire escapes behind it. It is lit in gorgeous golden hues by Richard Howell.
The show is driven by ecstatic, elastic movement from director/choreographer Drew McOnie that perfectly complements its restless, relentless narrative journey. A stunning cast of musical theatre veterans, including not one but two Tony winners, and younger performers bring each character to bracing and bruising life.
Frances Ruffelle lives up to the description of Queenie’s age seeming to stand still, looking no different to when she originated the role of Eponine nearly 32 years ago; only her voice is now more smoky. As her partner Burrs, John Owen-Jones brings that magnificent voice of his into full play for a great nervous breakdown of a song How Many Women in the World?
There are also sensational contributions from Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Queenie’s best friend and rival Kate and Simon Thomas as Kate’s boyfriend Black whom Queenie becomes infatuated by.
In fact the entire cast thrills and chills, with Tiffany Graves and Melanie Bright as a lesbian couple, Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea as a young gay male couple, Steven Serlin and Sebastien Torka as a pair of theatrical impresarios, and Bronte Barbe as the underage Nadine whose sexual curiosity is violently rewarded by Dex Lee’s predatory Jackie.