Review: The Wild Party – exposes a raw humanity ★★★

Launching Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new venue with a production of Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party was always going to be a risk. There’s the inevitable confusion when a show has two versions (remember Ken Hill’s version of Phantom of the Opera?) and people know the songs in the other version (by Andrew Lippa which featured Idina Menzel).

LaChiusa’s version, nominated for a Grammy and 7 Tony Awards, has arguably the more intelligent score, weaving intricate jazz with the original Joseph Moncure March narrative poem and keeping closely to the spirit of 1920s prohibition America. But where the LaChiusa version triumphs in cleverness, at times its songs merge into a messy soup of similarity.

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You’d struggle to find a stronger cast anywhere in the West End [Tristram Kenton]
Drew McOnie’s direction relies a little too much on his strength as a choreographer, at times seeming to come at the cost of deeper characterisation. There’s a scene near the beginning of the show where the show’s leading lady, Queenie (played with throaty lasciviousness by Frances Ruffelle) is strapped to the bed like a grown-up version of Regan in The Exorcist: fortunately we were spared the crucifix, but we were also spared the thrills.

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The dashing Simon Thomas as Black (left), and the sensationally smokey Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Kate (centre) in rehearsal

Fortunately, each time Act One begins to lag, another guest arrives. And this is quite a party: just about every invitee seems already to have consumed a lifetime’s supply of narcotics on their way to Burr’s & Queenie’s somewhat minimalist residence (hats off to a clever use of multiple staircases). And it’s here The Wild Party both earns its name and hits a snag. The dynamic of Act One is simply too high, too soon. Rather than grow and beguile, drawing the audience in, we’re instead treated to a talented cast working their socks off simply to make their characters seem real. Each seems to have a hollow emptiness, existing in a theatrical vacuum and whereas Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret breaks up the moral bleakness of the era with musical brilliance, here the songs simply ring with a hollow despair.

Fortunately, the excellent band more than makes up for any lack of dynamic in the song-writing and their positioning above the stage provides a clever juxtaposition of order and disorder – even if the audience struggle to hear vocals as a result.

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Simon Thomas – matinee idol looks and a slinking physicality [Tristram Kenton]
I struggled at times with elements of the book & lyrics, not only in not being able to hear them properly (The Other Palace seems to have inherited the sound problems of the St James’ Theatre) but also in somewhat outdated references to black people being “more chocolatey” and a brief discussion about Jewish people changing their names to sound less Jewish (a theme which seemed to be ditched with completely in Act Two). Those themes are never explored and accordingly I felt like the piece was simply paying lip-service to certain characters.

But in other ways, Act Two improve enormously. Where Act One seems to spend overly-long introducing one character after another, the dramatic arc post-interval is rather more elliptically fulfilled. As the mood of the party shifts, the piece darkens deliciously and dynamic bonds between characters are strained to breaking point. One scene in particular is handled brilliantly, but will shock the most seasoned theatre-goer.

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The fabulously foxy Frances Ruffelle as Queenie (centre) in rehearsal

From a top-notch cast I must single out Simon Thomas, whose matinee idol looks and slinking physicality bring a feline suavity to Black, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is a smouldering and deliciously funny Kate and relative newcomer Dex Lee arrives with a bang as the explosive Jackie who delivers one of the night’s most genuinely shocking moments. But the rest of the cast, too, are from the very top drawer of Musical Theatre; Frances Ruffelle and John Owen Jones are ably supported by an on-form and bitingly funny Tiffany Graves as weary stripper Madelaine, Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea as The D’armano Brothers and Donna McKechnie as faded leading lady Dolores.

At times, I did wonder if this wouldn’t have made better straight play than a musical. The vaudevillian theme, set at counterpoint to the intimacy of the party, would surely have packed a greater dramatic punch were there not so much actual music. John Owen Jones is a wonderful Musical Theatre actor, but where the scenes between Burrs and Queenie should have electrified, they simply shocked.

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Frances Ruffelle – Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still [Tristram Kenton]
One final word of caution when booking: Sadly, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber has seen fit to preserve the curved seating at either end of the first few rows, so consider this when booking and avoid those seats if you’re tall.

So, is the show worth seeing? Well, yes actually. For all its shortcomings, you’d struggle to find a stronger cast anywhere in the West End, and when the show succeeds it exposes a raw humanity that most of us try our best to hide. Anyone who’s ever gone through a phase of partying just a bit too hard can’t help but smile at the line “I heard a rumour that six o’clock happens twice a day. I guess it must be true.”

Buy tickets for The Wild Party – booking until Saturday 1 April.

Suitable for ages 16+

Full Cast Announced For WILD PARTY

Full casting is announced today for Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, which receives its first major London production at The Other Palace, playing from Saturday 11 February to Saturday 1 April 2017, with a press night on Monday 20 February. The Wild Party will be the inaugural production at The Other Palace (formerly St. James Theatre), when it reopens in February 2017.

Joining the previously announced Frances Ruffelle as Queenie are John Owen-Jones as Burrs, Simon Thomas as Black, Donna McKechnie as Dolores, Dex Lee as Jackie, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Kate, Ako Mitchell as Eddie, Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea as The D’armano Bros, Melanie Bright as Sally, Lizzy Connolly as Mae, Steven Serlin as Gold, Sebastian Torkia as Goldberg, Bronté Barbé as Nadine and Tiffany Graves (read our full interview with Tiffany here) as Madelaine.

John Owen-Jones is best known for his performance as Jean Valjean in Les Misérabes, playing the role to acclaim in the West End, on Broadway and in the 25th Anniversary Production. He has also played the title role in The Phantom of the Opera in the West End many times.

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Simon Thomas has played Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty’s Theatre), Warner in Legally Blonde (Savoy Theatre) and Rapunzel’s Prince in Into The Woods (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre). Television credits include Drifters (Channel 4), Jonathan Creek (BBC) and Doctor Who (BBC).

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Simon Thomas & Sheridan Smith in Legally Blonde in 2010.

Donna McKechnie is best known for creating the role of Cassie in the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line, receiving a Tony Award for her performance. Her many other Broadway credits include Promises, Promises, in which she danced the iconic ‘Turkey Lurkey Time’, On The Town, Company and State Fair. The Wild Party will mark Donna’s return to the London stage for the first time in almost 20 years, after appearing in West End productions of Follies, Promise, Promises and Company.

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Donna McKechnie in My Musical Comedy Life, 2011.

Dex Lee is currently playing Danny in Grease at Curve Theatre, Leicester, with other recent credits including In The Heights (King’s Cross Theatre), Hairspray (UK Tour) and The Scottsboro Boys (Garrick Theatre).

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Dex Lee & Layton Williams in Hairspray (UK Tour) – Photo Ellie Kurttz.

Victoria Hamilton-Barritt recently appeared in Murder Ballad (Arts Theatre), with other credits including In The Heights (King’s Cross Theatre), A Chorus Line (London Palladium) and Gypsy (Curve Theatre, Leicester).

Ako Mitchell is currently starring in Ragtime at Charing Cross Theatre with other credits including Grey Gardens (Southwark Playhouse), Little Shop of Horrors (Royal Exchange, Manchester) and Sister Act (London Palladium).

As previously announced, Frances Ruffelle will play Queenie. Frances is perhaps best known for originating the role of Eponine in Les Misérables in the West End and on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for her performance. Her many other stage roles include Dinah in the original company of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express (West End), Roxie Hart in Chicago (West End), Frastrada in Pippin (Menier Chocolate Factory) and the title role in Piaf (Leicester Curve).

Set against a backdrop of Manhattan decadence and 1920’s excess, The Wild Party tells the story of Queenie and Burrs, a Vaudeville showgirl and a Vaudeville clown whose relationship is marked by vicious behaviour and recklessness. In an attempt to salvage their toxic union, they decide to throw a party to end all parties. The guests are a vivid collection of the unruly and the undone: a cocaine-sniffing bisexual playboy; a washed-up boxer; a diva of indeterminate age; a fresh-faced ingénue; and a handsome Valentino who catches Queenie’s roving eye. The jazz and gin soaked party rages to a mounting sense of threat, as artifice and illusion are stripped away. But when midnight debauchery turns into tragedy, the revellers must sober up and face reality. After all, no party lasts forever.

Based on Joseph Moncure March’s narrative poem of the same title, The Wild Party originally opened on Broadway in 2000 with a cast including Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt. The production received 7 Tony Award nominations, and a Grammy Award nomination for its composer and lyricist Michael John LaChiusa. LaChiusa is one of the most prolific writers for the American musical stage, with works including Hello Again (1994), Marie Christine (1999), The Wild Party (2000) and See What I Wanna See (2005). He was nominated for Tony Awards for his book and score for The Wild Party and Marie Christine, and for his book for Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

The Wild Party will be directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie, who received the 2016 Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer for his work on In The Heights (King’s Cross Theatre). Drew is directing and choreographing the European Premiere of Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom at West Yorkshire Playhouse this Christmas, with other recent choreography credits including Jesus Christ Superstar (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre), Bugsy Malone (Lyric Hammersmith), The Lorax (The Old Vic) and Oklahoma (UK Tour). Drew is also the Artistic Director of The McOnie Company, for which he recently created a new dance-thriller version of Jekyll and Hyde at The Old Vic.

The Wild Party is produced by Paul Taylor-Mills, who is the new Artistic Director of The Other Palace. Paul’s recent productions as a producer include In The Heights (King’s Cross Theatre), The Last Five Years (St. James Theatre), Side Show (Southwark Playhouse) and Carrie: The Musical (Southwark Playhouse).

The Wild Party has music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and a book by George C. Wolfe and Michael John LaChiusa. It is directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie with musical direction by Theo Jamieson (Funny Girl, West End), set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour (Dr Faustus, Urinetown, The Commitments, West End) and lighting design by Richard Howell (Jekyll and Hyde, Old Vic). Casting is by Will Burton. It is presented by Paul Taylor-Mills by arrangement with R&H Theatricals Europe.

For more information and to book tickets visit www.fromtheboxoffice.com/TheWildParty

 

Douze Points: A West End Eurovision Love Affair

This weekend sees the 60th anniversary of the camp-fest that is the Eurovision Song Contest.

Laughter and Lycra....nothing beats the drama of a Eurovision final
Laughter and Lycra….nothing beats the drama of a Eurovision final

Vienna has re-phased its traffic lights in anticipation for a competition which started way back in 1956 when Europe was just a group of countries making cheese and squabbling over Poland. Since then, Europe has opened it’s arms to allow countries like Azerbaijan, Israel and anyone else with enough money to take part. This year, it’s Australia.

Austria's Eurovision crossings are anything but pedestrian...
Austria’s Eurovision crossings are anything but pedestrian…

Eurovision is unashamedly camp: Last year’s winner was Austria’s Conchita Wurst – part drag queen part bearded sausage. Before that we had Jedward singing about lipstick and Russia’s dancing grandmothers creating a decoy while the rest of the family invaded Ukraine. The West End has a long standing love affair with all this nonsenseso just how many West End performers have stepped up to “take one for their country”? Read more