There’s a decidedly febrile, over-heated quality to Drew McOnie’s unashamedly in-your-face choreography and direction of The Wild Party, a musical Broadway audiences gave the thumbs down in 2000. Inspired by a prohibition-era narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, with a possible nod in the direction of the wild party given in a San Francisco hotel room by silent-screen comedian Fatty Arbuckle that ended in tragedy, there are also echoes of the far superior Kander and Ebb musical Chicago.
The setting is New York, and the party’s hosts are an abusive burlesque comedian (first seen in a circus clown’s makeup) called Burrs (John Owen Jones) and Queenie (Frances Ruffelle), a vaudeville dancer with whom he shares an edgy relationship. To add some glamour and spice to the fast-encroaching boredom of their existences, they invite an assortment of debauchees with varying sexual proclivities and appetites. There’s Dolores (Donna McKechnie), an over-the-hill diva whose glory years are a mere memory; Kate (Victoria Hamilton-Barritt), Queenie’s bitchy rival-cum-best friend; Kate’s current sexual playmate, Black (Simon Thoms); a lesbian called Madelaine True (Tiffany Graves); a pair of incestuous brothers who could be twins (Genesis Lynea and Gloria Obianyo); Jackie (Dex Lee), a wealthy ingénue who’ll sleep with anyone who’ll have her; and two Jewish entrepreneurs, Gold (Sebastian Torkia) and Goldberg (Steven Serlin), who don’t know what they’ve let themselves in for.
What audiences have let themselves in for is an evening in which 15 characters (or should I say caricatures, for they all resemble cartoon figures that could have come from the pen of the famous jazz-age artist John Held Jr) are in desperate search of a plot. Even the Lovell Telescope would have difficulty finding a storyline in the book provided by Michael John La Chiusa (who also wrote the music and lyrics) and George C. Wolfe, with whom the project originated.
In fact, given that the show is little more than a collection of song-and-dance routines – with each of the characters enjoying a moment or two in the spotlight – the whole thing might have worked much more effectively as a jazz ballet, the spoken word dispensed with entirely.
That said, McOnie’s staging is certainly livelier than the Broadway original I saw 17 years ago, the dancing more energetic and the performances more committed. Ruffelle (who memorably created the role of Eponine in Les Miserable) is in terrific vocal form as Queenie, and Owen-Jones equally persuasive as her jealous lover. It’s also great to see McKechnie, Cassie in the original Broadway production of A Chorus Line, strutting her stuff once again. All the performances as well as the orchestra under its pianist/conductor Theo Jamieson are first class. So is Soutra Gilmour’s set and Richard Howell’s lighting.
Physically the show is a knockout. But with no plot to bind it together, not a single character to root for or care about, nor a score whose tunes earworm their way into the memory, what you’re left with is plenty of energy but zero involvement.