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Review: THE WILD PARTY, The Other Palace

With a refurbished bar, new La La Land-like internal signage and a brief to be bold with new musicals and unexpected revivals, the St James's Theatre has been transformed by Andrew Lloyd Webber into The Other Palace - halfway between The Palace Theatre and Buckingham Palace, it's a name change that makes sense. Unfortunately, its inaugural show, The Wild Party, doesn't - well, not completely anyway.

We're in New York in the 1920s, where ageing vaudeville starlet Queenie isn't getting along too well with husband, melancholy clown Burrs. Queenie's brainwave to get some energy back into their fast-fading relationship is to throw a party for New York's demi-monde, with plenty of bathtub gin, pills and powder to get everyone into the swing of things. But as the booze takes hold and any vestigial inhibitions fall away, the partygoers, including Queenie and Burrs, find things are not getting better - in fact, they're getting worse.

The book, by Michael John La Chiusa (who also wrote the songs) and George C. Wolfe introduces us to a kaleidoscope of folks whom one might provide as answers for a quiz show category "Characters you would find in a risque musical set in the 1920s". There's a ballsy ex-stripper, a bitchy showbiz rival made good, a soulless gigolo, a black boxing champ with an eye for a blonde, a couple of Jewish theatre producers planning to go uptown, two lesbian lovers who might swing both ways, a cocaine dealer who definitely does swing both ways, a kid showgirl to be led astray and a couple of black brothers with real talent as song and dance men hiding a secret or two of their own.

Under director/choreographer, Drew McOnie, these characters dance and sing and couple and fight and hook up and break up at a breakneck speed - at times, it felt like Game of Thrones, with yet more storylines being introduced just when you've got the last set of lovers/enemies sorted out.

The spectacle (and this is a big show even if The Other Palace remains a medium-size theatre) gives us plenty to look at while the booze flows and the insults fly, but we never really get to know the real person behind the stereotype, as there just isn't time available to do much more than sketch in a personality trait or two and they're off. Inevitably, we just don't care enough about them to be sufficiently invested in their fates.

What the songs lose in individuality (there isn't a real showstopper, but no real duffers either) they gain in their capacity to evoke that sordid milieu - there are plenty of suggestions of Gershwin, Porter and Berlin in the melodies and brassy orchestrations from Theo Jamieson's eight-piece band.

But, despite the 24-carat Broadway/West End voices on show - Frances Ruffelle and John Owen-Jones are veterans of Les Mis, Donna McKechnie has a Tony on her mantlepiece and everyone else is well up to scratch - what should be a great strength becomes a frustrating weakness. Many of the numbers are passionate uptempo songs, the lyrics of which were largely lost to me because the band were simply mixed too loud for the singers to balance - even with vocalists this accomplished. When the music backed off a little, for example in "People Like Us", a lovely duet between Ruffelle and Simon Thomas - a Rupert Everett-lookalike gigolo in a white linen suit - I glimpsed the power of the songwriting that barely surfaced elsewhere.

The Wild Party crackles with exuberance and danger and brings a touch of the Grand Guignol to a genre often accused of being overly happy-clappy, but its sprawling book and cookie-cutter characters left me preferring a gin and tonic in the kitchen.

The Wild Party continues at The Other Palace until 1 April

Read our interview with Frances Ruffelle

Picture credit: Scott Rylander

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