Newly rebranded as The Other Palace and now part of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s empire, the former St Jame’s Theatre aims to focus on new British musical theatre. With Paul Taylor-Mills at the creative helm and two spaces in which to develop and showcase new work from the UK, their debut production is…(drumroll)…an American musical from 2000. An odd choice considering the Broadway production nearly two decades ago left critics unimpressed.
This revival of Michael John LaChiusa’s musical The Wild Party unfortunately lives up to its original reception. Dripping with sex, booze and jazz, there are some great tunes but little substance. Narrative progression is off kilter, with the story taking entirely too long to reach a point of conflict and passable interest. The race, gender and sexual politics that were revolutionary at the time are now fairly pedestrian, or at least not particularly shocking. Although director Drew McOnie makes a couple of unique choices and displays stunning choreographic skills, it’s not quite enough to salvage this skeletal work with too much focus on the visual.
Ageing vaudeville star Queenie, shacked up with her abusive co-performer Burrs, throws a party to perk up their otherwise mundane lives. Predictable jazz age decadence disintegrates into an angry orgy with an ending that’s billed as tragic, but isn’t. LaChiusa’s book is practically non-existent what with the show’s structural tribute to vaudeville, but this leads to shallow, two-dimensional characters who are boring and fake until sex complicates everything. This format itself is predictable and dull.
Frenetic and angular, McOnie’s choreography captures the needy dissatisfaction of a people trapped in a world solely focused on selfish indulgence. It translates much better through movement than any of the other performance elements, or the writing. The cast execute it flawlessly, with the D’Armano twins (Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea) a particularly exquisite example of movement and dance skill.
Many of the performances are stereotypical, overblown depictions of vintage New Yorkers rather than played as actual, real people. Perhaps this comes from the cultural differences between the UK and the US. British people are so emotionally constrained that they have to get wankered before they can express emotional vulnerability, so to display emotional openness at a party involves either exaggerated fakery or drunkeness. Americans on the other hand, particularly New Yorkers, refuse to filter their emotions even in the most polite of company. (I bet you a dollar that within 5 minutes of meeting someone from New York they start talking about their therapist.) Going off this theory, it makes sense that American Broadway legend Donna McKechnie displays a natural ease within her character’s unrestrained honesty. This isn’t seen in rest of the cast. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt is the notable exception as Queenie’s spiky best friend, Kate.
Though the exuberant and fluid sexualities are good to see in the typically hetero world of musical theatre, they aren’t socially or theatrically edgy anymore – and the central couple is straight and anti-feminist anyway. What is much more interesting is McOnie’s casting of two women as the D’Armano brothers, a youthful double act admired for their boyish charm and showmanship. There isn’t much scope for comment on trans people and drag in the roaring 20s beyond a bit of blocking, but it’s great that McOnie touched on the idea.
The highlight by a long shot is McOnie’s choreography, though a long first half of heightened playacting is wearing. A combination of a weak book and superficial character choices let down its redeeming features.
The Wild Party runs through 1 April.
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