Launching re-vamped venue ‘The Other Palace’, (formerly The St James Theatre) is an electric staging of Michael John LaChuisa and George C.Wolfe’s ‘The Wild Party.’ Based on the 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March about a roaring 20’s party in uptown New York, it’s original debut was famously pitted against one of a similar name by Andrew Lippa. It is a stellar choice for Paul Taylor-Mills opening this space as Artistic Director. It is thrilling to see a venue readdressing their ideals and focusing on bringing new musical theatre to the West End. As Lloyd-Webber states in his notes,‘I want The Other Palace to become a genuine hub for anyone interested in musical theatre. This season only two new musicals will have been produced in the West End compared to thirteen on Broadway. Maybe The Other Palace can help redress the balance.’
The staging (by Soutra Gilmour) is inventive, with a tall intertwining staircase to the right and various dark doorways leading off-stage. Above the main floor, sits the band on an open balcony circled by lights. Key pieces of furniture are wheeled on stage, including a large bed, a chaise lounge and a record player. They are utilised exceedingly well within Drew McOnies direction and choreography, with cast members draped and dancing over them throughout. The story itself is ultimately as engaging as a party, we watch intensely as we are introduced to larger than life characters spouting lines about themselves. The direction is energetic with never a slow moment, pushing from number to number. The first section ‘The Vaudeville’ introduces us to our key couple, Queenie and Burrs, but mostly just Queenie. She is desperately trying to re-live her time as a bustling socialite, with Vaudeville clown boyfriend Burrs attempting to control her. Then in come her party guests, primarily in pairs; Phil and Oscar D’Armano whose every move is in sync, lesbian couple Miss Madeleine True and Sally, boxer Eddie and his wife Mae, her little sister Nadine, producers Gold and Goldberg the ultimate socialite Jackie, vaudeville veteran Dolores and finally Kate and her gigolo Black.
‘The Party’ is everything you want it to be. It begins with flowing conversation, even a hint of networking, it then escalates to a bath tub full of gin and full on carnage. The first act ends with the ultimate vision of gin, sin and skin spilled out on the stage for everyone to lap up. The one moment of stillness throughout the piece, when Black and Queenie sing ‘People Like Us,’ falls short of being genuine. There is a slight disconnect between the two characters, although it really allows the audience to reflect on the reasons behind the characters’ actions throughout. During the section of the show, ‘After Midnight Dies’, the comedown is immense, we feel the party flood in realisation and depression. The characters pick themselves up from the floor, redress themselves or continue to career into catastrophe.
The era is so important in creating the aesthetic, it also shows up in various styles of orchestration and everything is linked together through the choreography. A highlight of this would be ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ when Burrs noticeably steps out of the party and performs a Vaudeville style song highlighting the tantrums the guests are facing. But ultimately it is effective throughout the piece in making a slight but undeniable pastiche of the era in which the musical is set.
The characters are almost a pastiche of themselves, they’re riddled with problems and are so full of themselves that as an audience we really want to delve into them. As Jackie, Dex Lee is insatiable, oozing confidence whilst he lolls and rolls around the room. The Brothers D’Armano (played by Genesis Lynea and Gloria Obianyo) are flawless from start to finish, with each movement choreographed and placed perfectly. Not to mention, they just look so good! Meanwhile as Kate, Victoria Hamilton-Barritt packs the ultimate punch. John Owen-Jones is perfection as Burrs. He almost takes on the role of reluctant narrator as he moves in and out of his clown routine, in order to fill us in on how the party is changing. Bronté Barbé is exceedingly well suited as Nadine, transforming from an enthusiastic little sister as she’s led astray.
There is new orchestration by Theo Jamieson, which brings a modern touch to the show. Alongside ingenious choices, such as casting ‘brothers’ and ‘gay couple’ Oscar and Phil D’Armano as two almost identical girls. Whilst the show lends itself to the blending of backgrounds and the old and new, we see West End favourites John Owen-Jones and Frances Ruffelle mixed in with fresh and exciting talented young performers. I really do think they have managed to showcase the essence of new musical theatre in order to set a high bar for all the wonderful shows we’re sure to see here in the coming years.
The Wild Party is playing The Other Palace until April 1.
Photo: Tristram Kenton