“Blame it on the gin”
There’s no doubting the visual flair that choreographer Drew McOnie is able to conjure in his work – In The Heights and Jesus Christ Superstar being just two recent examples – and so it is no coincidence that his move into directing has begun with dance-heavy pieces. Strictly Ballroom lit up the stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse before Christmas and now The Wild Party opens up the programming at The Other Palace, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rebranded St James Theatre.
Michael John LaChiusa’s musical version is not the first adaptation of Joseph Moncure March’s epic poem to hit London this year – that title goes to the Hope Theatre’s two hander from last month. But it does have its own tunes presented as a vaudeville, a real mish-mash of every 1920s style you can think of and more, which makes for a bold and brash evening – especially as performed by this lavishly assembled ensemble – but ultimately, one of little staying power.
March’s jazz-age tale of a tempestuous couple holding a gathering to end all gatherings allows for a real parade of vivid caricatures to come passing through in search of gin, blow, sex and some defining characteristic or other. Sometimes this works, as in the hypnotic moves of Gloria Obianyo and Genesis Lynea’s gender-flipping couple, and Dex Lee’s animalistic sexuality but sometimes, you’re left craving more than the shallowness that the writing too often falls back on.
Even Frances Ruffelle and John Owen-Jones as Queenie and Burr, the couple hosting the revels in the hope of filling the void in their relationship, struggle to deepen their leads, and the splendid talents of Victoria Hamilton-Barritt and Simon Thomas are ill-served as the friends and lovers who crash tragically into the night. Everyone is good, that goes without saying, and it looks a treat, but McOnie needs to be wary of letting style rule over substance.