REVIEW: THE WILD PARTY (The Other Palace) ★★★★

Based on the 1928 Joseph Moncure March poem of the same name, Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe’s The Wild Party makes its UK premiere at The Other Palace. Formerly the St James Theatre, The Wild Party also marks the first production at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Other Palace. When the poem was first released, it was widely banned due to it’s depiction of sex and drug use, becoming a success due to the controversy. The musical was one of two musical offerings based on the poem within the same season in New York with LaChiusa and Wolfe’s version being presented on Broadway and being nominated for seven Tony awards that year. Being a big fan of the roaring twenties and all things Gatsby-esque, I’ve always wanted to see this version of The Wild Party so was very excited when the option to review came about.

The story is portrayed in a series of five sketches; ‘The Vaudeville’ where we are introduced to Queenie, a Vaudeville blonde, and her tempestuous relationship with Burrs, a clown who is “made of vile and violent stuff.” At home, Queenie and Burrs decide to throw a party, asking themselves “When was the last time we had a real party?” The next sketch sees the ‘Promenade of Guests’ where we meet the majority of characters attending the party. It quickly becomes clear the attendants are a mixture of authenticities, sexual identities and genders ready to let their hair down and enjoy themselves in any way they can. Next up is ‘The Party’, Queenie starts things off as she wishes the night to continue by dancing the Black Bottom before we meet some late arrivals; her best friend Kate and Kate’s lover Black. Burrs amps up the party by bringing out his bathtub gin, the party quickly escalates into an orgy as everyone expresses their Need. After the interval, we see the aftermath of the party in ‘After Midnight Dies’. As the decisions and connections made during the party begin to unravel and Queenie and Burrs relationship comes to a head. As Burrs confronts Queenie about her involvement with Kate’s lover Black, the party comes to a tragic end in ‘The Finale’.

Paul Taylor-Mills’s production is directed by Drew McOnie (In The Heights) and stars Tony Award-winners Frances Ruffelle as Queenie (Les Miserables) and Donna McKenzie (A Chorus Line) as faded star Dolores. Also included in the cast are Phantom of The Opera and Les Miserables alum John Owen-Jones as Burrs and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt (In The Heights) as Kate. As Queenie Frances Ruffelle oozes sexuality and delivers sultry vocals throughout. The epitome of a 20’s vaudeville star, her Queenie is both vulnerable and hard as nails. Abused by Burrs and loved by Black, a commanding and affecting performance is given of an incredibly demanding role. Donna McKenzie as faded star Dolores was a joy. Her presence onstage expertly commanding the space and seducing the audience with charm, she delivered some of the most poignant lyrics in the show, “I can tell you that no party lasts forever, I been there and seen enough” in her solo When It Ends. John Owen-Jones delivered an emotive performance as Burrs. An abusive cruel man, Burrs starts the show an entertainer able to hold it together in the public eye while at the party and allows this mask to drop showing his true nature. In an intimate performance, John Owen-Jones expertly portrays these two personas (or masks) accumulating in a disturbing How Many Women In The World at the end of Act Two. Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Queenie’s best friend Kate manages to deliver a performance that feels brand new. Really inhibiting Kate, Hamilton-Barritt offers stunning vocals bringing Kate to life in a way that seems fresh and real. Drawing me into her world, Kate seemed to jump straight from the pages of the original 1928 poem. Watching Hamilton-Barritt’s performance I totally forgot I was in a theatre and genuinely wanted to do everything in my power to be befriend her Kate.

Other notable performances include Dex Lee as dandy Jackie. Lee’s physical performance of Jackie’s insatiable passion for sex and cocaine was extremely believable. I’ve now seen Lee as Billy in Carrie: The Musical at the Southwalk Playhouse and as Seweed Stubbs in Hairspray and it always strikes me at how much he embodies the characters he playing. I’m looking forward to a show where we can see Lee in a lead role, the West End transfer of American mega-hit Hamilton perhaps? Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea as The D’armano Bros were wonderful choices for this gay couple/brother act.

Their voices and movements were cleverly crafted to resemble the men they’re playing and their comments on what is considered “Tabu” thought-provoking.

Knowing the show before attending, I knew what to expect in terms of score and book. LaChiusa’s The Wild Party is a Broadway show, often criticized for its dialogue. In this production, the creative team do their very best to bring the show to life and offer a Wild Party that entertains, shocks and is overall a wonderful production. Boasting incredible star power, The Wild Party combines enough glitz and glamour to give The Other Palace a fantastic opening.

Reviewed by Stuart James
Photo: Scott Rylander

THE WILD PARTY plays at The Other Palace until 1 April 2017