THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The Wild Party
The Other Palace (formerly St James' Theatre), London SW1
Book, music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa; book by George C. Wolfe
Reviewed By Jarlath O'Connell
The Wild Party is a musical based on a notorious 1927 narrative poem (which was banned), by Joseph Moncure March, about a debauched party hosted by platinum haired Queenie, an ageing vaudeville showgirl and Burrs, her sadistic and homicidal lover. It revels in Jazz Age New York, when uptown met downtown, when whites mingled with blacks and lowbrow with highbrow. Awash with lust, death and substance abuse it makes Chicago look like Mary Poppins.
First staged on Broadway in 2000 with Toni Collette and Eartha Kitt (it was, amazingly, one of two musicals that season based on this material), it had a mixed response. LaChiusa, along with the likes of Adam Guettel and Jason Robert Brown, were hailed as the Great White Hope of the Broadway musical, the next Sondheim etc. That's a lot to hope for and here, sadly, LaChiusa's reach doesn't exceed his grasp.
Current West End wunderkind director/choreographer Drew McOnie (In the Heights, Joseph) has given this its West End premiere, having been handed the opportunity to do so by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, who has purchased the St James Theatre and transformed it into The Other Palace, an exciting new try out space for musicals. For this the Lord must be praised.
With all this expectation it is sad to report that the material here isn't really up to the 4-star production it has been given. We're in a world of underwear, garter belts, wafts of cigarette smoke and ladles of gin and Soutra Gilmour's clever designs manage to be both louche and spare at the same time.
Suffering can of course make great drama but you've gotta care about the sufferers and here, alas, the characterizations are wafer thin. Frances Ruffelle isn't really given enough to make Queenie's transition from icy manipulator to little-girl-lost believable, so the later nasty scenes with her brutish partner Burrs (John Owen-Jones) have little impact. Eerily he is also a professional clown. It's a very disquieting part and the sexual politics are problematic to say the least.
Being about a raucous gin party, it starts with a high pitched 'promenade of guests' and never really steps off that merry-go-round. There is an abundance of secondary characters and an overabundance of forgettable songs, most of which are like extending music over poor dialogue and they don't enlighten us further about either character or plot. The frantic pace matches the desperation of the characters, but not in a good way, so you soon feel like you're trapped with the tv channel stuck on MTV.
A supremely talented cast, including two Tony winners, Frances Ruffelle as Queenie and Donna McKechnie as Dolores Montoya, a superannuated diva, do well with the musical material they are given but end up defeated by workman-like lyrics. The score, suffused with 20's jazz influences, does have its pleasures though and is beautifully rendered, in richly textured arrangements, by MD Theo Jamieson. This gives free rein to McOnie to work his magic with the dance numbers and transitions which, as always, are fluid, sexy and clever.
Without any spine to the piece though it becomes a collection of cameo 'turns'. Of these Tiffany Graves is a particular delight as a witty, predatory lesbian with a spaced out avant-garde artist in tow. There's cocaine, flashing, gender bending and a soupcon of S&M but orgies are essentially dramatically inert, unless you're in them. Remember how even Kubrick couldn't make them interesting in Eyes Wide Shut.
This musical doesn't resolve the issue that watching two hours of other people's revelry is monotonous. It's been given a production it frankly doesn't deserve but the energy and enthusiasm lavished on it must signal that there are great things to come in this producing house.