Cross one off my list of regrets. I’ve probably listened to the cast recording of the 2000 Broadway production of Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe‘s musical adaptation of Joseph Moncure March‘s narrative poem The Wild Party at least once a week since I bought it, and I bought it the week it came out. It’s a spectacular album – a brilliant, starry cast led by Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt giving a more or less perfect performance of (most of) a brilliant, criminally underrated score – but by the time I heard it, the show had only a couple more weeks to run on Broadway, and while I lived much closer (an overnight bus ride) to New York then than I do now, I wasn’t able to get there to see it before it closed. The show played 36 previews and just 68 performances on Broadway – not a “hit” by any yardstick, but that doesn’t make the score any less spectacular. My interest was further piqued after the publication of Wiley Hausam’s anthology The New American Musical, which I picked up at a conference book fair; it contains the show’s script, and the script is fascinating. I’ve loved the material for a long time, but never had the opportunity to see the show live in a theatre, so when the British premiere production was announced – a mere sixteen years after it closed on Broadway – I’d booked a ticket within an hour of them going on sale.
It’s dangerous, sometimes, to go in to something with high expectations. I deliberately didn’t listen to the cast recording between booking the ticket and seeing the show (an interval of perhaps four months) in order to enable myself to come to the material fresh when I actually saw it – not easy to achieve with music you’ve listened to regularly for a decade and a half, but never mind. This production’s biggest achievement is that it made something very, very familiar to me seem absolutely fresh. That original cast recording features a roster of perfect, distinctive performances; for this production, director Drew McOnie has cast a good proportion of the show’s central roles deliberately against the types embodied by the actors who originated them, and the result is invigorating. The musical, far more than the (long but rather thin) poem it’s based on, is about social facades: what people hide, what people choose to reveal (and to whom), and what happens when the facade begins to crumble.
Seeing the production in the theatre is also a lesson in how cast recordings can be imperfect documents: I knew, but had half-forgotten, that this is a very music-heavy show and that a great deal of the score is not preserved on the album, but it was still a surprise to (re)discover just how much is missing. As I said, March’s poem, in terms of narrative, is somewhat on the thin side – depending how you frame it, it doesn’t necessarily contain enough incident to fill two hours of stage time – but in this adaptation, despite fine lyrics by LaChiusa and a taut book by LaChiusa and Wolfe, it’s the music that drives the show. This is a dazzling score; LaChiusa’s very, very clever musical pastiche draws from a variety of Roaring Twenties song styles, but the score’s structure is entirely contemporary. This is more a continuous musical tapestry than a parade of individual songs (although the score includes a number of very, very fine individual songs), and it often seems as though the show’s musical numbers don’t begin and end so much as collide. The result is sometimes harshly dissonant, sometimes achingly melodic, and always thrillingly theatrical.
Somewhat in the manner of Chicago (but only somewhat) the show is presented as a sequence of (sometimes very extended) vaudeville sketches; possibly a little too much time is devoted, in the first third of the show, to giving each individual guest at the party a musical number outlining his/her backstory, but the music is exciting enough to hold your attention. The plot, such as it is, centres on Queenie, a vaudeville dancer, and her deteriorating relationship with her live-in lover/common-law husband, a violently unpleasant vaudeville clown named Burrs. Burrs suggests hosting a wild party in order to end a fight; the party, though, spirals out of control, with sexual inhibitions and social masks being lowered by a combination of bathtub gin and cocaine, and there are tragic consequences in the final scene. As the party gathers steam, Queenie’s friend Kate arrives trailing an escort named Black, and there’s an immediate attraction between him and Queenie; by the end of the party, Burrs is dead, but Queenie has tentatively begun to step out from behind the various “masks” – make-up, alcohol, co-dependent relationships with unsuitable men – she’s previously hidden behind, and the show’s final image is of her scrubbing off her make-up. There’s a strong sense, at the end, of redemption and even salvation, for her if not for anyone else. She will rise, as the show’s star once memorably sang in another context, and never fall again, and she will be free (I know, I know – but when the door is open, it would be criminal to walk by).
So yes, I like the material – and by ‘like’, I mean this is as good a musical score as anyone on either side of the Atlantic has written in at least the last three decades. The particular triumph of Drew McOnie’s sensational production is that he matches the relentless, propulsive, dazzling score with a staging driven by relentless, propulsive, dazzling movement. Under his direction, the show feels choreographed from end to end, although it isn’t precisely a ‘dance musical’. The closest comparison, in terms of what I’ve seen, would be Tommy Tune’s (brilliantly staged) production of Grand Hotel, only (of course) with fewer chairs. The show begins with an explosive row and keeps building in intensity; this production adds an intermission (on Broadway, the show played in a single act), and it’s necessary: after an hour at this party, you need a few moments to catch your breath. There’s plenty of light and shade, but there’s so much packed into every moment that without a break the production could easily become overwhelming, and the show’s pace very rarely lets up: this wild party is a wild, wild ride.
That’s also down to a collection of exhilarating performances. Frances Ruffelle is the production’s above-the-title star, and she’s sensational, but she’s surrounded by a spectacular supporting cast. John Owen Jones‘s Burrs is a seething, furious train wreck waiting to happen. Jones makes the character magnetically unpleasant, brings real fire to his musical numbers, and does not (thank God) in any way resemble Mandy Patinkin, who created the role in the Broadway production. As faded star Dolores Montoya – the role originated by the late, great Eartha Kitt – Donna McKechnie effortlessly embodies a bloodied-but-unbowed showbiz survivor, and she slams her big not-quite-eleven-o’clock number, When It Ends, into the rafters with riveting precision. Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea are insinuatingly sexy as the Brothers d’Armano, an incestuous song-and-dance act; if you’re as familiar with the Broadway cast recording as I am, it’s a little startling to hear their musical numbers performed by two women, but the casting isn’t simply a stunt, and the point is revealed in the second half when we see one “brother” binding the other’s chest: LaChiusa and Wolfe adapted March’s poem into a story about “the way we use cultural masks to hide or obfuscate our real identities: racial masks, sexual masks, emotional masks” (as LaChiusa puts it in a lengthy programme note), so of course it makes sense to show two women (apparently successfully) passing as men, at least in public. Best of all, there’s Victoria Hamilton-Barritt‘s electrifying star-turn-in-a-supporting-role as Queenie’s frenemy Kate, an effortlessly sexy combination of heat, froideur, and bulletproof timing. Her paean to/putdown of her current lover, Black is a Moocher, is probably the show’s musical peak, and when she duets with Ruffelle, earlier in the show, sparks fly.
As for Ruffelle, she’s a revelation. It goes without saying that her singing is superb (although she isn’t the first voice I’d have thought of for this), but there’s a tremendous emotional depth to her performance, and that’s not the easiest thing to achieve in a production as relentlessly frenetic as this one. She’s funny, steely, vulnerable, sexy, smart and foolish, sometimes all in the same beat, and she fully mines the well of deep sadness behind LaChiusa’s more introspective songs. Her duet with Black, People Like Us – probably my favourite song in the score – is the show’s beating heart. In the middle of the noise and the smoke and the chaos of the surrounding party, Ruffelle and Simon Thomas’s Black show two damaged, lonely people singing about a sense of yearning that they can’t quite put into words. It’s a lovely moment; for me, it was worth the cost of the ticket for just that one song.
The production values, too, are impressive. This is The Other Palace‘s first venture under the artistic directorship of Paul Taylor-Mills; the theatre’s mission, per the cover page on their website, is to “offer a creative hub for all things musical theatre, from providing spaces to develop and workshop new ideas to presenting full-scale productions.” If they can maintain the standard they’ve set with this first production, it’s going to be a venue to watch. This isn’t the West End, and there’s clearly a budgetary ceiling, but the production has an atmospheric multilevel set by Soutra Gilmore (great use is made of a winding tenement staircase that stretches up towards the flies), an eight-piece band on a platform above the stage (the flawless musical direction and new arrangements are by Theo Jamieson, who also plays piano), period-perfect costumes by Chris Cahill, and a range of ticket prices that drop as low as £15 without discounts – if you’re going to make a name for yourself as a laboratory space for new/lesser-known material, tickets need to be affordable enough that people feel able to take a punt on something unfamiliar. When top prices elsewhere in the West End are rising into three-figure territory, keeping a tight hold on the bottom end of the pricing scale is the best way to bring in a new audience, particularly to a venue that’s a little off the beaten path. Better still, those £15 tickets aren’t, as they are in some theatres, behind a pillar in a top balcony. The steeply-raked auditorium has only one tier of seats, and sightlines are admirable.
Really, assuming you respond to the material – as I said, I love it, but it’s certainly the kind of show that polarises audiences – there’s very little to criticise here. Perhaps Richard Howell’s lighting is a little heavy-handed in places – he maybe falls back once or twice too often on shining blinders into the audience, and (assuming it wasn’t a tech malfunction) having the spotlight fade sharply on Queenie on the show’s final beat as she sings the line “this is what it is to live in light” is a thuddingly obvious choice that veers past irony almost into the realm of the bathetic – but in every other way the physical production is ideal. Yes, it’s relentless and exhausting – I’ve some sympathy with Matt Wolf’s description of the production in the New York Times as “Follies on amphetamines” – but it’s also a dazzling, thrilling roller-coaster ride through a truly brilliant musical score. How good is it? I live 200 miles from London, and I’m going again before it closes.