Ever thrown or been to a party where things have got a little out of hand? Yep, me too. In fact, there was a certain party where……. Well, I can’t say any more because my mother sometimes reads these reviews. However, no matter what has happened at your party, it pales into insignificance compared to the shenanigans at Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s The Wild Party which has re-launched The Other Palace (formerly the St James Theatre) in Victoria.
1920s New York and Vaudeville performer Queenie (Frances Ruffelle) is getting bored with her relationship with fellow performer Burrs (John Owen-Jones). In an effort to calm her after one particularly nasty fight threatens to get out of hand, Burrs suggests they throw a party and invite all their old friends. This is destined to be some party and Queenie is planning to really enjoy herself and see that her guests do too. And what guests there are: The guests include fading star Dolores (Donna McKechnie); Kate (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), Queenie’s best friend and rival; Black (Simon Thomas), Kate’s younger lover, who has his eye on Queenie; Jackie (Dex Lee), a rich, “ambisextrous” kid who has his eye on everyone, regardless of gender or age; Oscar and Phil D’Armano (Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea), a ‘brother act’; lesbian stripper Miss Madelaine True (Tiffany Graves) and her morphine-addicted girlfriend Sally (Melanie Bright); black prizefighter Eddie (Ako Mitchell), his white wife Mae (Lizzy Connolly) and Mae’s fourteen year old Lolita-like sister, Nadine (Bronte Barbe). And finally would-be Vaudeville producers Gold and Goldberg (Sebastian Torkla and Steven Serlin). As the bathtub gin flows, and the white powder disappears, the guests’ inhibitions – such as they were – disappear out of the door. Secrets come out, lust raises its head, swiftly followed by jealousy and rage as the party goes from wild to uncontrolled to its almost inevitable ending.
The Wild Party starts with a bang with the song Queenie was a Blonde’ and goes charging through the nearly two and a half hour runtime at full pelt until the final moments. This is Musical Theatre with a capital M and T. Virtually no script, the story is pretty much told in song and dance and looks like it really tests both the actors and the band – under MD Theo Jamieson – who are in constant sight thanks to Soutra Gilmour’s multi-level set. For the actors, this is high energy and Director/Choreographer Drew McOnie really evokes the spirit of the age – ably assisted by the sumptuous costumes which look stunning on men and women alike – and keeps the narrative moving at a fair old pace. Also worth mentioning is the excellent atmospheric lighting design of Richard Howell, who manages to make the performing space look so much bigger than it is.
Every character in The Wild Party is an individual and has a story to tell, so each gets their moment in the spotlight as they bring the audience into their lives. This technique works really well sometimes, and two solo numbers in particular, stood out for me in the production. The first was Burr’s song ‘Wouldn’t it be Nice?’ which, while being light and airy on the outside is actually quite emotional. The second, which I have to say really hit me emotionally was Dolores solo ‘When it Ends’ which Donna McKechnie sang with every fibre of her body drawing the loudest cheer of the night for her bravura performance.
This leads us nicely into the actors, and this is a strong cast with no less than two ‘Tony’ award winners on the stage. Due to the nature of the characters, there is a real mixture of ages and genders and the entire team pull together brilliantly to make this the party of the century. Frances Ruffelle as Queenie particularly shines as does John Owen-Jones as Burr and the two of them really do seem like lovers at loggerheads with each other, and there is a nice chemistry between Queenie and Simon Thomas’s very smooth gigolo Mr Black. Really great work by Frances to build realistic appearing relationships with two such different characters. Thinking back, I don’t think there were any performances that were less than perfect.
So, with all this praise heaped upon the show, why does it not have five stars I hear you ask. The truth is that for some reason I just didn’t fully connect with The Wild Party. I think the problem was that there was so much going on at a frantic pace that, at times it all got a little overwhelming at times as to who was doing what to or with whom. This show has everything except the kitchen sink, though there is a bath instead. Since every character has a story within the overarching party, I found it very difficult to get to know and really care about anyone in particular which was a shame as there were some really interesting characters and scenarios being portrayed on the stage. However, in some respects, the musical reflects real life since if we had been at an actual party, then it would be impossible to keep up with the comings and goings of everyone throughout the course of the night.
To summarise, the music is amazing, if you like 1920s American jazz, blues and everything else, then this is for you. I’ve been listening to the original Broadway cast album this morning and loved every minute of it. The staging is fantastic and the acting first rate. All told, if you like your party to be wild, carefree and hang all consequences then this is the show for you.
Review by Terry Eastham
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME WE HAD A REAL PARTY?
The hugely acclaimed THE WILD PARTY makes its UK premiere.
Directed and choreographed by 2016 Olivier Award-winner Drew McOnie (In the Heights) and starring the Tony Award-winning Frances Ruffelle (Les Miserables), this sizzling new production of the Tony Award-nominated sensation is not to be missed.
A glittering, blackly comic musical set against the backdrop of Manhattan decadence and 1920s excess, THE WILD PARTY tells the story of Queenie and Burrs, a vaudeville showgirl and vaudeville clown, who decide to throw the party to end all parties in a bid to save their toxic relationship. But as the gin flows, the jazz swings and the sexual tension smoulders, debauchery soon turns to tragedy, as even the wildest of parties can’t last forever.
Please note this show has an age recommendation of 16 + as it contains scenes of a sexual nature and adult language.
Frances Ruffelle – Queenie
John Owen-Jones – Burrs
Simon Thomas – Black
Donna McKechnie – Dolores
Dex Lee – Jackie
Victoria Hamilton-Barritt – Kate
Ako Mitchell Eddie
Gloria Obianyo – The D’armano Bros
Genesis Lynea – The D’armano Bros
Melanie Bright – Sally
Lizzy Connolly – Mae
Steven Serlin – Goldberg
Sebastien Torkia – Gold
Bronté Barbé – Nadine
Tiffany Graves – Madelaine
The Wild Party
Approx. 2 hours and 20 minutes including a 20 minute interval.
13 February – 1 April 2017
The Other Palace Theatre