What better way to open The Other Palace (formerly St James Theatre) than with a wild party? Michael John LaChiusa’s musical takes on Joseph Moncure March’s 1920s poem and paints an unglamorous picture of the dissolute decade with a cast of unsympathetic and pitiless characters. Guys and Dolls it ain’t!
The story follows vaudeville dancer Queenie (aka Frances Ruffelle, the magnificent Jewish musical theatre star, the original Eponine in Les Mis) and her tempestuous relationship with vaudeville clown Burrs (mighty-voiced John Owen-Jones, who has played Jean Valjean more than anyone else in Les Mis’s history). One Sunday, after a fight, Burrs suggests they throw a party and invite "all the old gang". Eagerly they prepare for a wild party fortified by bathtub gin, cocaine and sex.
Director/choreographer Drew McOnie’s winning formula is his powerful casting of a parade of wild guests, led by Chorus Line legend Donna McKechnie as fading star Dolores and Victoria Hamilton-Barritt’s scary alpha female Kate, Queenie's best friend and rival, with Simon Thomas, striking as her arm candy, Black, who is eyeing up Queenie – you get the picture.
There are two eye-catching double acts. Oscar and Phil D'Armano, a gay couple/brother act are actually played by two terrific women, Genesis Lynea and Gloria Obianyo, playing hookie with their sexuality. The Jewish interest lies in a matching pair of wannabe Broadway-bound theatre producers, Gold and Goldberg. That’s also the title of their number, which has Sebastian Torkia’s jaunty Gold working on Goldberg (an assertive Steven Serlin, the Rabbi from The Infidel) to change his name to Golden, hoping that playing down their Jewishness will help them strike, well, gold. They’re no match for predatory Dolores who plays the pair like a snake when she realises they could be her ticket to Moving Uptown (a deliciously witty, sexy number).
Moncure March’s poem has a driving repetitive rhythm, great for narrative but impossible to sustain in lyric and libretto. LaChiusa translates that into the show’s equally relentless freneticism, especially in the longer, louder first half, with most of the show’s almost 40 numbers following in quick succession.
Happily McOnie moves his nattily–dressed (designer Soutra Gilmour) party animals to create sophisticated stage pictures on Gilmour’s glitzy levels, dominated by MD Theo Jamieson’s fine eight-strong orchestra, on show on high, doing justice to LaChiusa’s challenging mix of 20s pastiche, vaudeville, jazz and more contemporary musical style.
The shorter second half comes as a relief, slowing the pace to allow for plot, pathos and some more intense numbers as melodrama takes over.
It makes a promising start to this new venture from Andrew Lloyd Webber and artistic director Paul Taylor-Mills offering a central London home and breeding ground for musicals in development.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Scott Rylander
The Wild Party runs until Saturday 1 April. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2.30pm (Sat only). £10-£65. The Other Palace, SW1E 5JA. 084 4264 2121. ww.theotherpalace.co.uk