Inaugurating The Other Palace (formerly St James Theatre) is a brand new production of Michael John LaChiusa’s The Wild Party. Famously when this show made its debut on Broadway it was going head-to-head with an entirely different version by Andrew Lippa (off Broadway) – both based on the original Joseph Moncure March narrative poem.
Showgirl Queenie and her lover, Burrs (a Vaudeville clown with a violent streak), decide to throw a party – with it being the 1920s it is full of the carefree abandon and reckless thrill-seeking that we associate with the inter-war years. The guest list is suitably outrageous, the jazz is hot and there’s more than enough bathtub gin to go around! Queenie invites her best friend Kate, to Burrs’ distaste, and her arrival with Mr Black really puts the cat amongst the pigeons.
What is pretty incredible about this show is that it has 15 characters, each with their own story arc, all squeezed into roughly two hours of stage time. Each is easily identifiable and memorable in their own way; the core storyline surrounding Queenie provides a solid base upon which these other tales build. Drew McOnie has taken on the role of director/choreographer for this production, and has made some tweaks to the original Broadway version, most notably grouping together fragmented scenes later on and switching the order of some songs – as well as adding in an interval. I’m often not a fan of shows putting in intervals and then picking up where they left off 20 minutes earlier, but in this case it really works: the final few bars of the first act are reprised to good effect and it means the audience isn’t sat for a bum-numbing two hours without a break.
What you can really hear in the score is the jazz influence. From frequent heavily syncopated rhythms to the signature dirty saxophone sound, it manages to take the essence of the music from that era without making a straightforward copy. Some numbers have more of a Vaudeville feel to them, depending on the subject matter of the scene. There are also some slower, more ‘musical theatre’ style ballads thrown in for good measure. For me, the show is at its best when it goes all out on jazz (Uptown stands out), though there are some other highlights – such as Gin and Wild.
The score is prime fodder for McOnie’s instinctive choreographing, effortlessly capturing the spirit of the age without ever feeling stale or dated. His collaborative approach also plays a part here, as everything feels very natural to each individual performer – and their energy and enthusiasm speak for themselves.
Soutra Gilmour’s set has the feel of a cross between a speakeasy and a New York apartment, with the band on display on a platform to one side and the typical set of fire escape stairs on the other. Given the amount of characters (and therefore cast) involved, you might think a larger stage would be necessary, however I think The Other Palace has the perfect dimensions: there is ample stage space, and the audience is close enough to make it an intimate experience. It is set in a flat, after all, so realistically there wouldn’t be lots of room available.
There is not a single weak link in the cast; due to the nature of the story each has their chance to take centre stage, and they all take it with gusto. It takes a little time to warm up, but once we get to the party itself it feels like the show is in full swing – and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s arrival as Kate somehow manages to take things up another notch. She very nearly manages to steal every scene she’s involved in, and the slight rasp to her voice suits her character perfectly.
Two brilliant double acts are on show, in the shape of the D’armano Bros (Gloria Oblanyo and Genesis Lynea) as well as wannabe theatrical entrepreneurs Gold and Goldberg (Sebastien Torkla and Steven Serlin). Once again Lizzy Connolly can be relied upon to belt out a tune or two and bring some comic action to proceedings, as well as some more moving scenes as Mae questions her relationship with boxer Eddie.
It is a refreshing change to see John Owen-Jones in a different style of musical; his big voice fills the auditorium and the jazz singing style seems to suit him. His turn as the homicidal and jealous Burrs is masterful and intimidating, especially when he is made up in his clown’s guise – the ultimate nightmare for coulrophobes! Frances Ruffelle is full of energy and sass as Queenie. She’s a woman on a mission, flirting with everyone in sight (including the audience) and just generally out for a good time. What Ruffelle also does brilliantly is show the more damaged side to Queenie, showing that (for all her exuberance) what she really needs is a bit of affection.
My verdict? A hot jazz musical that stands out from the crowd, with 15 top-class performances and choreography to die for – this is one party you’ll want to be invited to!
The Wild Party runs at The Other Palace (formerly St James Theatre) until 1 April 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office. TodayTix also has £15 Rush tickets available from 10am each day.