"Welcome to my party/ Glad you stumbled in," declares Queenie to one guest, but to another she asks, "Who the hell invited you?" Here's a musical wild party that the Other Palace is throwing to inaugurate Andrew Lloyd Webber's new ownership of the venue that was formerly the St James, which will now be a home for new and developing musicals; and anyone with a sense of musical adventure is cordially (and not so cordially) invited to attend.
It's a welcome addition to London's theatrical landscape, which has hitherto not had a single theatre devoted exclusively to musicals, even if two-thirds of the West End's annual audience go to them over anything else. And yet a show like The Wild Party -- originally premiered on Broadway in 2000 in a short-lived production -- would have been unlikely to ever see the light of day in the West End, so it is doubly welcome that it has now found a berth here.
London theatregoers need exposure to American musicals beyond Wicked and the upcoming transfer of Hamilton, and composer Michael John LaChiusa, whose work is much beloved of singers like Audra McDonald, and whose other shows include such titles as Giant and Marie Christine that have both also not been seen in the UK, needs to be heard here.
The Wild Party is a dense, intense and intimate tapestry of electrifying movement and jazz-age music in this fantastic production by director/choreographer Drew McOnie. Based on a 1928 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March (that was coincidentally also musicalised by another New York based composer Andrew Lippa which premiered Off-Broadway in the same year as this show opened on Broadway), it offers a intriguingly syncopated portrait of a dysfunctional relationship hurtling towards oblivion, played out against a party fuelled by bathtub gin, cocaine and sexual transgression, that even disturbingly includes an under-age rape.
Its dark stuff; and McOnie's production matches it in pitch-black moody intensity. But it also moves with a swing, in every sense, with stunning choreography propelling its narrative journey. And a thrilling cast of musical theatre royalty give it full value. That includes two Tony Award winners -- both still seductively sensational more than forty and thirty years since they won that fabled award. Frances Ruffelle (the original West End and Broadway Eponine in Les Miserables) is superbly cast as Queenie, a woman about whom it is said "was a blonde and her age stood still"; she seems ageless here, and peerless, too, as a woman grabbing at life before it passes her by. Likewise, the incredible Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie from A Chorus Line, plays an ageing diva still determined to shine in the spotlight, and which she magnificently achieves here.
But there's strength right across the performing ranks here, with such luxury casting as John Owen-Jones (a veteran of both Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables around the world) as a wonderfully voiced Burrs and the gorgeously edgy Victoria Hamilton-Barritt as Queenie's best friend and rival Kate. And just plain gorgeous is Simon Thomas as Kate's boyfriend Black, and Tiffany Graves as a part of a lesbian couple whose partner is high on drugs.
This is a party well worth gate-crashing if you can't get a personal invite.
What the Press Said...
"Big, blowsy revival you won't want an invite to....so frenzied it leaves you exhausted."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Frances Ruffelle has such a wealth of music-theatre experience that she could play Queenie in her sleep; perhaps a more waking, less “heady” singing voice would help here."
Ian Shuttleworth for The Financial Times
"Some of the dialogue is as exciting as brushing your teeth, and there’s a fair dollop of stodgy exposition. Yet what The Wild Party lacks in story it abundantly makes up for in other departments."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard