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.
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.
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.
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properly (The Other Palace seems to have inherited the sound problems of the St James’ Theatre) but also in somewhat outdated references to black people being “more chocolatey” and a brief discussion about Jewish people changing their names to sound less Jewish (a theme which seemed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.
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.
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+